College Rankings

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

The popularity of college ranking surveys published by U.S. News and World Report, Money magazine, Barron's, and many others is indisputable. However, the methodologies used in these reports to measure the quality of higher education institutions have come under fire by scholars and college officials. Also contentious is some college and university officials' practice of altering or manipulating institutional data in response to unfavorable portrayals of their schools in rankings publications.


In college rankings publications, as opposed to college guides which offer descriptive information, a judgment or value is placed on an institution or academic department based upon a publisher's criteria and methodology (Stuart, 1995, p. 13). In the United States, academic rankings first appeared in the 1870s, and their audience was limited to groups such as scholars, higher education professionals, and government officials (Stuart, 1995, pp.16-17). College rankings garnered mass appeal in 1983, when U.S. News and World Report's college issue, based on a survey of college presidents, was the first to judge or rank colleges (McDonough, Antonio, Walpole, and Perez, 1998, p. 514). In today's market, the appeal of college ranking publications has increased dramatically. Time magazine estimates that prospective college students and their parents spend about $400 million per year on college-prep products, which include ranking publications (McDonough et al., 1998, p. 514).

Popularity of College Rankings

Hunter (1995) believes that the popularity of rankings publications can be attributed to several factors: growing public awareness of college admissions policies during the 1970s and 1980s; the public's loss of faith in higher education institutions due to political demonstrations on college campuses; and major changes on campus in the 1960s and 1970s such as coeducation, integration, and diversification of the student body, which forced the public to reevaluate higher education institutions (p. 8). Parents of college-bound students may also use reputational rankings that measure the quality colleges as a way to justify their sizable investment in their children's college education. (McDonough et al., 1998, p. 515-516).

College Reliance on Rankings and General Criticisms of the Rankings Publications

College administrators have increasingly relied on rankings publications as marketing tools, since rising college costs and decreasing state and federal funding have forced colleges to compete fiercely with one another for students (See Hossler, 2000; Hunter, 1995; McDonough et al., 1998). According to Machung (1998), colleges use rankings to attract students, to bring in alumni donations, to recruit faculty and administrators, and to attract potential donors (p. 13). Machung asserts believes that a high rank causes college administrators to rejoice, while a drop in the rankings often has to be explained to alumni, trustees, parents, incoming students, and the local press (1998, p. 13).

Criticisms of rankings publications have proliferated as scholars, college administrators, and higher education researchers address what they perceive as methodological flaws in the rankings. After reviewing research on rankings publications, Stuart (1995) identified a number of general methodological problems: 1) Rankings compare institutions or departments without taking into consideration differences in purpose and mission; 2) Reputation is used too often as a measure of academic quality; 3) Survey respondents may be biased or uninformed about all the departments or colleges they are rating; 4) Rankings editors may tend to view colleges with selective admissions policies as prestigious; and 5) One department's reputation may indiscriminately influence the ratings of other departments on the same campus (pp. 17-19).

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