US News rankings introduce new system of surveys and weighting

U.S. News & World Report, traditionally the best-known source for ranking colleges, is considering some changes in its methodology and criteria for scoring schools throughout the nation.

According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, U.S. News plans to send out surveys to counselors at its recently ranked 100 best high schools asking them to give input on their ranking of colleges, in addition to making changes to the questions sent to college presidents.

In the past, the rankings were based on seven different types of criteria, obtained from a number of different sources.

Peer assessment is the highest weighted category that the rankings are based on; here, university presidents are asked to rank their peer schools’ academic programs on a scale of one to five, with the choice of “don’t know” if they don’t know enough about a certain school. The other six categories are retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate.

The changes that U.S. News plans to implement include asking college presidents to identify “up-and-coming” colleges, as well as soliciting their opinions about changing the weight of certain categories and other modifications.

Carnegie Mellon’s President Jared L. Cohon has a number of changes that he would like to see implemented in the rankings.

Even before the changes were announced, Cohon had expressed a desire to see changes made in the rankings; he had previously written to U.S. News describing the changes he believes need to be made.

Cohon’s biggest problem with the rankings lies in the graduation rate performance category, which calculates what U.S. News calls the “added value” of a college. Cohon explained that this value is computed by taking the average GPA, SAT scores, and other related information of a class, information that is used to find an average GPA of the class. This number is then subtracted from the average GPA expected after one year at the college, which is determined using the same information.

“If the difference is a positive number, then the assumption is that the college has added educational value; however, if the difference is negative, that suggests that students are losing educational value by attending the college, which is unacceptable,” Cohon stated.
Cohon is dissatisfied with this method of computation, where the averages are not computed only by mathematics. Additionally, Cohon said that U.S. News’ “added value” calculation does not take into consideration the fact that different universities have different average GPAs. Carnegie Mellon suffers from this stipulation, as its average GPA is low compared to peer institutions, which causes the university to be ranked lower than others.

On the topic of alumni giving, one of the seven criteria particularly judged by U.S. News, Cohon does not believe that the rates of alumni giving are relevant to the ranking of the college.

“It doesn’t judge quality or educational impact of the school, it only indicates the alumni’s financial capabilities, and the university’s ability to get money from their alumni,” Cohon stated.

Alternative to U.S. News’ current methods, Cohon believes that in order to get the most valuable information on a college, the emphasis should be placed on faculty standards.
Faculty interact with students through both classes and research, and their quality is just as important as the classes themselves, Cohon explained.

Even with the changes U.S. News plans on implementing in mind, the real value of the rankings is still doubted by many.

Saunnie Barringer, a college guidance counselor at Pittsburgh’s Baldwin High School, is one such critic.

“While we do present it as one resource that students can use to do school comparisons, in all honesty, most of what it says is common knowledge. Most people know the higher-ranking schools and that doesn’t change a lot from year to year,” Barringer said.

The rankings also focus solely on numbers, lacking any input from students attending each school, Barringer mentioned.

“I don’t think the rankings take all the important aspects into account, like the atmosphere of the school,” said sophomore creative writing major Allison Seger.

There remain other rankings of colleges, such as College Prowler, which offers rankings on everything from attractiveness and campus life to academics.

As to whether the changes make a significant difference in the ranking of the top colleges or not, only next year’s figures will tell.