U.S. News ranking error bumps university from top 10

Last week, colleges and universities learned that the college rankings released annually by U.S. News & World Report, which have gained such authority in the past few years that they can make or break a school's reputation, are not always the golden word. In the magazine’s 2008 issue of Best Graduate Schools, Carnegie Mellon’s graduate electrical and computer engineering program was misranked, costing the program its well-deserved spot on U.S. News’s top-10 list of programs in that department.

Although the program is currently ranked ninth nationally, U.S. News printed Portland (Ore.) State University’s (PSU) program in its place, completely excluding Carnegie Mellon from the rankings.

“My initial reaction was one of puzzlement, just because I know the quality of our program and that it has an exceedingly good national reputation,” said Thomas Schlesinger, head of the department of electrical and computer engineering.

Carnegie Mellon was one of two schools to be misrepresented in the rankings. University of Texas at Austin, which holds the number-10 spot, was replaced with the University of Texas at Arlington. Both UT–Arlington and PSU, whose programs actually didn’t make the rankings at all, were mistakenly placed on the top-10 list so that they appeared to compete with programs at MIT, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley, which hold the top three spots, respectively.

The mistake prompted officials at UT–Austin to call U.S. News, demanding an explanation as to their exclusion from this year’s rankings. Instead, the university ended up calling the publication’s attention to what they realized was an error.

The misprint also caused PSU to submit a press release announcing the success, which the university later had to retract.

Consequently, the U.S. News guidebook was recalled, the rankings on the magazine’s online edition have been corrected. In addition, next week’s print issue will include the corrections.

“While I hate to see our program not among the top-10 list, I have full confidence in our program and see it as much more than one annual misprint in its ranking,” said Joey Cordes, a first-year graduate student in electrical and computer engineering.

However, there was no mistake in U.S. News’ rankings of graduate-level engineering programs overall, which placed Carnegie Mellon at number six.
U.S. News’ rankings are determined on a scale of one to five, with five being the best score. The cut-off for this year’s top-10 list was UT–Austin’s score of 4.1.

The lowest score published by U.S. News is 2.5. Both PSU and UT-Arlington had ratings below this cut-off, which made them ineligible for placement on the list. Nationwide, 73 programs received scores of 2.5 or above.

U.S. News stated in an April 5 press release that the mistake was a “data glitch” due to reliance on computer printouts.

However, this is not the first time that U.S. News has made an error. The rankings fiasco comes on the heels of an incident with Sarah Lawrence College that occurred just last month. The publication was unsure how to place Sarah Lawrence in its rankings because the college no longer collects SAT scores, one of the seven categories on which each school is judged. U.S. News decided to rank the school based on the assumption that its average SAT was one standard deviation, or 200 points, below the average of its peer institutions.

Sarah Lawrence’s ranking, based on this information, was to be published in the U.S. News annual guidebook, as well as in the magazine’s annual Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools guides in which it reports the rankings.

Sarah Lawrence officials alleged that U.S. News had no right to make such an assumption and report it as fact in the magazine’s rankings.

“There is a bigger issue here regarding how much importance we should put on these U.S. News rankings,” Schlesinger said. “We need to keep this in perspective since one single number cannot quantify a college or university program.”

Fellow colleges and university administrators agree. At least 10 liberal arts college presidents are preparing letters to be sent to their colleagues at hundreds of other colleges and universities nationwide proposing a new set of policies to challenge the role of the rankings, according to the online news source Inside Higher Ed.The proposal includes ceasing to cooperate with U.S. News and refusing to fill out its “reputational” survey, which represents 25 percent of the magazine’s ranking formula.

The ranking formula judges each school on seven broad factors: peer assessment, retention and graduation of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rate performance.

U.S. News places more value on “output” factors, such as graduation rate and reputation, than “input” factors, such as entering test scores. Only about 50 percent of nationally accredited universities and their programs make it to the coveted list, according to Inside Higher Ed.

However, according to the magazine’s website, “rankings are only one of many criteria students should consider in choosing a college.”

Students and faculty agree that there are countless other factors at play. They feel that no matter what its ranking turns out to be, their program is strong.

“I think school rank is a small factor in people’s decisions to apply to or attend a particular graduate program,” said James Downey, a graduate student in the university’s electrical and computer engineering program. “There are much more important factors, such as graduate specialty and advisor choice. Rank mainly contributes to bragging rights.”