When the U.S. News & World Report rankings were first published in 1983, they equipped students with what had previously seemed to be top-secret information about colleges and universities. They highlighted the practical role of higher education—something in which students (and their families) were investing to improve their lives. “College is expensive,” said Robert Morse, the chief data strategist for U.S. News, via email. “U.S. News’s mission is to arm students with good data, enabling them to sift through lots of complicated information when deciding which school is the right fit for them.” The rankings allow students to compare schools in an (arguably) apples-to-apples way—allowing students to, according to Morse, “navigate the complex process of choosing the best school for them” and creating “a national move towards greater transparency in the education industry.”
Many educators see the rankings in an entirely different way.
They’re “highly pernicious,” said Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. “I think they’ve had a really deleterious effect on higher education as [colleges and universities] try to meet requirements that may not be in the best educational interest of their students.” The Education Conservancy founder Lloyd Thacker thinks the rankings have had such a disastrous impact on higher education that he edited an entire book—College Unranked—aimed at reminding “readers that college choice and admission are a matter of fit, not of winning a prize, and that many colleges are ‘good’ in different ways.” Critics like Roth and Thacker say the rankings contribute to the admissions frenzy, giving the impression that the most desirable schools—irrespective of the applicant and his or her specific interests and needs—are the ones at the top of the list, the ones that are harder to get into. “They accentuate the race toward the wealthiest schools,” said Roth.