In college rankings, what we measure highlights what we value

In college rankings, what we measure highlights what we value
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On Monday, university administrators, anxious alumni, and curious parents and students headed to a single source to find the answer to a burning question: How does their school rank on the annual U.S. News Best Colleges list?

It’s become an odd tradition, made even more complex by the many other outlets that now calculate and produce their own rankings, which can dramatically differ from what U.S. News feels constitutes “the best.”

One thing I teach my advertising and public relations students is that clarity in messaging builds trust and confidence. Yet the exact opposite is happening with higher ed rankings; there’s a lot of confusion.


For instance, U.S. News places Baylor University at #75 and Washington Monthly has it at #314, a difference of 238 spots. How can the same faculty, administration and academic programs result in such a wide gap?

In other parts of society, we have a bit more uniformity. No one expects McDonald’s to receive a Michelin gold star, and if Michelin gave them one, they’d be laughed out of the restaurant critic profession.

Is there any wonder why students, parents and advisors feel overwhelmed by this college ranking mess? There are multiple reasons for the recent 3.5 percent decline in U.S. undergraduate enrollment, with the COVID disruptions playing the biggest role. But it’s fair to ask if we’ve left students with too much to contemplate. It’s especially important as Congress debates giving Americans two free years of college.

What we really need is a quick overview of who works on these rankings and their results:

  • U.S. News: Twenty percent of its national universities and regional universities score is based on a peer assessment survey; 3 percent is based on alumni giving. They say “Giving measures student satisfaction and post-graduate engagement.” That may be true, but parents, students and advisors should be aware that what they call “best” includes data about who gives to the alumni association and receives a free license plate holder in return; that may not matter much to an 18-year-old looking for an education to meet his or her needs.
  • The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education Ranking: As one might expect from the news outlet that focuses on which stocks are up or down based on the word on the street, this ranking also allocates 10 percent to an institution’s overall academic reputation. They arrive at this by a “survey of leading scholars that helps us determine which institutions have the best reputation for excellence in teaching.” However, as students and other experts have noted, Tulane may have a great reputation but it would be even better if it used its large endowment to help more students. 
  • Washington Monthly: The magazine's report asks, “What can colleges do for the country?” and delivers by  rating them by how they recruit and graduate “students of modest means, produce the scholarship and scholars that drive economic growth and human flourishing, and encourage students to be active citizens and serve their country.” This is all very worthwhile; I just hope enough high school seniors agree the value of college goes beyond getting a degree and then a big paycheck. 

Let me be clear that quantifying and analyzing education outcomes is needed. As an aide to the governor of North Carolina in the ‘90s, I’m proud of our state’s top-ranking from the Rand Corporation for improving test scores. However, I also see my own students today at the University of Nevada, Reno, graduate, instantly start promising careers and realize that hard work is so much more of a predictor than rankings. 

Yet in higher education, we appear to have created a Frankenstein system. High Point University in North Carolina is the star of a recent article headlined, “Elite Universities Are in an Amenities Arms Race,” with its on-campus steakhouse and student union with a concierge. And U.S. News has rewarded it by placing it first in the 2021 Best Regional Colleges in the South 

During the Cold War we came to learn a lot about the arms race and how there was no way to win a nuclear arms competition without each side destroying the other. 

When there’s so much worry about the cost of college and its value, let’s be sure post-secondary education isn’t engaging in its own version of mutually assured destruction. One way to combat it is to work harder to understand the complex maze of methodologies that requires each student to not only appreciate the rankings but also how editors gathered the data.

Todd Felts, Ed.D. is a teaching associate professor of Public Relations and Advertising at the University of Nevada, Reno.