The US News & World Report annual ranking of US colleges and universities was released on Friday amid renewed controversy over the relevancy of such lists. Princeton University was listed as the top US national university, beating Harvard as it did last year. Williams College in Massachusetts was rated the country’s best liberal arts college for the fourth straight year.
Graduate school rankings will be issued in March next year.
The ranking has again come under attack. On one side are academic administrators critical of such rankings in principle. On the other are an expanding number of rival surveys who question the US News & World Report methodology.
Sixty-three US college and university presidents issued a letter on May 10 urging their fellow academicians to boycott filling out the "reputation survey" that determines a quarter of the points awarded to a university. Among other complaints they said such rankings "obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale."
Economist Robert Samuelson was among the unimpressed. While rankings aren’t perfect, he wrote, they "expose users to masses of objective, comparative information." He accused the colleges of "soft censorship". Notably, most of the colleges that complained fared poorly in the ratings. The highest-ranked liberal arts college to sign the boycott letter was Ohio’s Kenyon College (#32).
The questions raised about the methodology were more complex.
US News & World Report has a five-stage evaluation process that includes surveys, objective data about scores and finances, and a proprietarial "scientific formula." The rival Princeton Review bases itself largely on interviews with 120,000 students. The Fiske Guide to Colleges uses student interviews and a dataset that changes with each year to catch shifting trends.
The Report, which began academic rankings in 1983, evaluates nearly 1,900 academic institutions in the US. It is treated as so authoritative that some colleges award their administrators bonuses if they can increase the institution’s ranking.
The listings have helped create a larger public awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of colleges and their admissions policies. It is often said the most fervent readers are not students but "status-conscious" parents.
The proliferating number of rankings is testimony to US News & World Report’s success. The focus is no longer on academic standards as more students look for "a good fit" rather than a trophy name. The Princeton Review, for example, has a college index for "gay acceptancy".