Best Colleges, Poor Report: A commentary

U.S. News & World Report recently published the 24th edition of “America’s Best Colleges”—by far its most anticipated issue each year. Brian Kelly, editor in chief of the magazine, gives a soft sell to the rankings as a “first step” for prospective students, “a way to get a quick read on a variety of schools.” In point of fact, they are a big business with undeniable influence on higher education. Slight changes in a school’s ranking can significantly affect its recruitment, even its fundraising.

But the survey has serious flaws in both its method and philosophy. Americans in general and Catholic colleges and universities in particular would be wise to challenge its conclusions.


While the issues surrounding the U.S. News rankings are legion, the most troubling of them regards the validity of the instruments used to determine rankings. U.S. News considers 16 criteria, including selectivity, alumni giving, peer review and test scores, which are grouped into categories and assigned weights. But 10 years ago, when the magazine commissioned the National Opinion Research Center to evaluate its methodology, the center found that “the weights used to combine various measures into an overall rating lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis.” Why should peer review, for instance, count for 25 percent of a school’s ranking, and academic quality only 15 percent? The N.O.R.C. found the system “difficult to defend on any grounds other than the U.S. News staff’s best judgment on how to combine the measures.”

Also problematic are the data ignored. U.S. News does not assess “product”—how students who go to a given school turn out, what they learn, what opportunities, challenges or assistance are provided, even how satisfied they are. Such measurements are possible. In fact, each year the National Survey of Student Engagement alone surveys half a million students on issues like professor accessibility, academic engagement inside and outside the classroom, and tutoring. To rate schools without such data is like ranking football teams without considering their records. In which case, congratulations, University of Michigan! You’re still number one.

This question of the criteria used to evaluate the schools is of particular concern for Catholic colleges and universities. The pressure to succeed by U.S. News’s standards looms large. In recent years many Catholic institutions have branded themselves with giddy, unrealistic slogans like “the national Catholic urban university” (of Des Moines).

Institutions look to Notre Dame, Georgetown University or Boston College as the finish line, when in point of fact those schools, too, race to keep up with the Joneses. In the face of high competition and secular standards, the very question of what purpose a higher rank serves in the Christian scheme of things is easily lost.

The fact of the matter is, U.S. News’s image of a successful school ill suits Catholic institutions, ignoring their strengths or even casting them as flaws. For U.S. News the successful school is a wealthy institution with a lot of “buzz” that accepts very few of those who apply. Tuition costs are ignored; commitment to service, values or diversity is irrelevant; and accessibility may very well hurt a school’s score. This year Kelly reassured schools that data on graduation rates have been adjusted to account for Pell Grant students, whom he describes as “low-income students who tend to graduate at a lower rate than comparable students coming in.” “Rather than penalize schools for admitting a large number of low-income students,” says Kelly, “we put in a formula to factor that out to level the playing field.” This is an improvement, to be sure, but the underlying point remains: Accessibility is seen as a disability to be accommodated, while selectivity is praised. As Kay McClenney from the University of Texas at Austin wondered on the PBS “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” (8/20), “When in America did we come to the point of saying that the mark of quality is the proportion of prospective students that you refuse to serve?” The same could be asked of Catholic schools.

A growing number of institutions of higher education are refusing to participate in the U.S. News survey, citing these issues and others. The valid question, they argue, is not what is the “best” college, but what is the right college for a given student.

The report exerts too much influence for most schools to simply ignore it. But Catholic schools would do themselves and our society a great service (and some do) by evaluating and presenting themselves in terms of the intellectual and spiritual formation they provide, the questions they raise, the service they require, the world they wish to build and the faith that guides their efforts. U.S. News may not appreciate these values, but in a world hungry for meaning and purpose, many others will.

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