Published On: Wed, Sep 14th, 2022

Why U.S. News may have to rethink college rankings


U.S. News & World Report released its 2023 college rankings on Monday, and the results were not especially surprising. Princeton University was No. 1, again; MIT was No. 2, as opposed to tying for No. 2 last year with Harvard University, which dropped to No. 3 for 2023, in a tie with Stanford University (which had been No. 5 last year) and Yale University (No. 5 last year). Etc.

As my Post colleague Nick Anderson wrote, the release of the rankings comes with new complaints about the methodology, as well as a growing number of competitors that evaluate schools with different criteria than U.S. News. The 2023 list came out just a few months after U.S. News knocked Columbia University out of its No. 2 ranking among national universities after the accuracy of its data came into question.

U.S. News college rankings draw new complaints and competitors

U.S. News famously uses as part of its calculations the results of a survey of higher education leaders asked about their views of schools’ reputations. Anderson reported that the response rate now is 34 percent. A full 20 percent of a school’s “reputation” factors into its ranking.

The magazine uses as a tool for its ranking something called the Carnegie Classifications, the country’s leading framework for describing the work and impact that institutions of higher education have in comparison to each other.

Now the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education are working on revising the Carnegie Classifications, and will include a new category that measures how well institutions impact student social and economic opportunity. That could affect U.S. News in future years — and help those interested in higher education better understand the country’s thousands of colleges and universities.

This piece explains what the Classifications are and how they will change. It was written by Timothy F.C. Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education.

Harvard flunks this college ranking

By Timothy F.C. Knowles and Ted Mitchell

Millions of Americans, from current and prospective students to proud alumni and business leaders, are no doubt diving into the new U.S. News “Best Colleges” 2023 rankings released on Monday. Unfortunately, they are looking at their institutions and higher education overall through the wrong lens.

These types of college ranking systems oversimplify and distort the value of a higher education degree, placing a premium on perceived prestige and reputation at the expense of students, institutions, and our society.

There are nearly 4,000 institutions of higher education nationwide — community colleges and liberal arts colleges, large national research universities and comprehensive public regional universities, faith-based and minority-serving institutions. They all have unique missions and they all have the potential to improve a student’s life prospects just as much as the top-ranked schools in the U.S. News rankings.

There is a better way to view the diverse landscape of American higher education and the colleges and universities that serve our students and our nation.

Our organizations, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education, are working together to reimagine the Carnegie Classifications, which were first released in 1973 and are the leading framework for describing — not ranking — all institutions so that their work and impact can be understood in comparison to each other.

The current Carnegie Classifications organize institutions based on the numbers and types of degrees institutions confer, providing a snapshot of the higher-education landscape that is released every three years. The result is that institutions are grouped in categories such as doctoral universities with very high research activity, baccalaureate colleges with an arts and sciences focus, associate’s colleges with various focuses on transfer students and technical training, and special focus institutions such as those concentrating on health professions.

Why one-size-fits-all metrics for evaluating schools must go

U.S. News uses the Carnegie Classifications as the baseline organization for its rankings. But not only do we disagree with the overall methodology they and other rankings employ, we aim to update and reinvigorate the Classifications, including by producing a category that measures how well institutions impact student social and economic opportunity. When that happens, U.S. News will no longer be able to use the same old tools as a basis for their rankings.

Too many students, parents, policymakers, and the general public view higher education through a narrow prism, in no small part due to the way U.S. News and other rankings celebrate prestige and selectivity. But the “top-ranked” institutions serve just a small fraction of the 25.5 million students currently attending U.S. colleges and universities over the course of the academic year. For instance, only about 1.4 million students attend U.S. News’ 50 top-ranked public and private universities.

U.S. News changed the way it ranked colleges in 2018. It’s still ridiculous.

By contrast, more than 7 million students attend community colleges and more than 11 million attend regional public universities, federal data shows. Those and other institutions that serve the widest array of students have the greatest opportunity to positively impact their future economic potential and therefore the social and economic well-being of our country. They may not be considered “elite” by the type of measures U.S. News and other rankings use, but they are doing elite work every day on behalf of their students, and we can and should learn from them.

By reinventing the Carnegie Classifications, we are working to shift the focus of how the public views and receives information about higher education. Rather than concentrating on measures of elitism like selectivity, reputation, and alumni giving, we will recognize and celebrate institutions that do the best job on measures such as economic and social mobility and other essential student outcomes.

We won’t be issuing a ranked list, but we will evaluate institutions on things that really matter to our nation and its public good, as well as students and their families — things like increasing access to college, retaining and graduating students, and supporting job attainment and debt management. We want to change the national conversation about higher education and its value to redefine what constitutes an “elite” college or university in broader, more meaningful ways.

The new Carnegie Classifications will examine the extent to which all of our colleges and universities address their public purpose in several ways. In doing so, we will reflect and address institutions’ diverse missions and ways of serving the public good. We will still have classifications that categorize institutions by the types of degrees they offer, whether it is a doctoral institution focused on research or a baccalaureate college focusing on the arts and sciences. But too many institutions strive to gain Research 1 “status,” even when it isn’t the right fit with their missions.

U.S. News currently uses the basic Classification to help decide how to create its separate rankings — national universities, regional colleges, ETC.). Though U.S. News now has a social mobility factor, the new Classification will likely be more sophisticated. These and other changes could force U.S. News to rethink its use of the Classifications, which could impact the results.

This next iteration of the Carnegie Classifications, under construction now and due out in 2024, will recognize the wide range of schools that do a great job spurring student success and encourage a wider range of institutional excellence. Our essential goal is to help ensure that U.S. postsecondary education remains an engine of economic opportunity for all and that the American postsecondary sector remains the envy of the world.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said it well earlier this year when we announced our collaboration around the Carnegie Classifications: “Colleges and universities need to reimagine themselves around inclusivity and student success, not selectivity and reputation,” he said, adding that he hopes the announcement of the new Classifications “will be the beginning of a new competition among colleges — one that rewards colleges doing the most for upward mobility.”



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