Popular college rankings systems like U.S. News & World Report, the Princeton Review, and Forbes focus on status instead of knowledge, incentivizing institutional spending while lowering academic standards. They do not adequately assess college costs, free speech climate on campus, or even what students actually learn in the classroom, factors that matter to families and students.
Despite these major faults, parents, students, and college counselors use these rankings systems because they are well-advertised, popular, and provide a shortcut for the laborious college search process. Few parents have the time or knowledge to comb through hundreds of college websites, and rising juniors and seniors in high school are easily distracted by the social opportunities, dormitory amenities, and athletics programs touted by college admissions offices. Unfortunately, the methodology used by major rankings systems is questionable and creates perverse incentives for colleges to game the rankings.
The U.S. News & World Report system, for example, includes some criteria that should give parents and students pause. The 2021 and 2022 rankings use the following factors in their evaluation:
- Retention and six-year graduation rate—22%;
- Social mobility—5%;
- Graduation rate performance—8%;
- Faculty resources—20%;
- Student selectivity—7%;
- Financial resources per student—10%;
- Average alumni giving—3%; and
- Graduate indebtedness—5%.
Parents and students should note that U.S. News & World Report uses the six-year graduation rate, not the four-year rate, which means that this factor reflects students who incur an additional two years of debt, lost income, and missed work experience. Furthermore, the number of full-time faculty and the student-faculty ratio both count for a mere 1%, while faculty salaries count for 8%. In other words, whether or not students will experience small class sizes (which facilitate strong relationships with instructors and excellent discussions with classmates) is not given proper attention, while how much professors are paid merits quite a bit more attention, at least in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Finally, the financial resources per student factor is an indicator of institutional wealth and does not reflect if the money is well spent. Average alumni giving is another indicator of wealth and of the advantages possessed by elite institutions that attract affluent families.
The rankings game has a harmful influence on students and higher education institutions. First, colleges and universities are incentivized to game the system. They find out what criteria will factor most heavily in the rankings and then strive to improve those metrics, whether or not they are tied to academic quality. Second, institutions make financial and educational decisions in order to move up the list instead of focusing on what is best for students, families, and taxpayers. The rankings game also encourages schools to falsify data. Just recently in 2019, the University of Oklahoma was stripped of its ranking for providing false data since 1999. This perverse arrangement drives up costs by rewarding schools that spend a lot of money per student regardless of whether that money is spent on a lazy river or on developing a strong core curriculum. Finally, major rankings systems also rely on dubious peer assessment, which in essence is name-brand recognition and itself a result of college rankings.
WhatWillTheyLearn.com (WWTL.com) is different. It is free, easy-to-use, and focuses on the fundamentals. Unlike other college rankings systems, WWTL.com evaluates what students learn in the classroom. The website evaluates if institutions require all students to complete a core curriculum shown to prepare graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship. WWTL.com grades the core curricula at over 1,100 colleges and universities on an “A” through “F” scale based on how many of the following core subjects they require students to study: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language (intermediate level), U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.