US News & World college rankings make unfair comparisons

David Bordelon

U.S. News & World Report released their annual college rankings on Sept. 8, placing UT 52nd of national universities and 16th in public universities. The top of the list is dominated by private institutions with huge endowments and who are frequented by the privileged — Princeton, Harvard and Yale, respectively, are the front-runners. 

Despite the amount of influence the rankings have, they can be flawed. Even the U.S. News & World Report FAQ page acknowledges that certain qualitative aspects of a school, such as diversity, atmosphere and student satisfaction, are minimized in favor of quantitative aspects like retention rates and alumni giving.

The problem is that those certain measures will always favor some schools over others. For example, alumni giving will always favor wealthy private schools over state universities, which are attended by students from broader economic backgrounds. That means while rankings can serve as a motivation for school success and attract bright students, they can be a misguided metric.

“The rankings are a great source of pride for me, personally, and the other professors in my department,” said Lisa Koonce, a professor in McCombs’s first-ranked accounting program. “It means we have done a great job and are being recognized for it.”

Rankings are also a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in the case of the accounting department, where the best students choose to attend the best institutions.

“One of the reasons I applied to the accounting program once I got into UT was because of its number-one ranking,” said MPA and history junior Matthew Hamner.

But comparing establishment and funding across universities is ill-advised. The quantitative metrics used to rank schools cannot perfectly capture true educational quality.

“There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge its students,” wrote author Malcolm Gladwell in a 2011 New Yorker essay, “So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”

In turn, these rankings allow one to compare apples and oranges of schools and should not be as heralded and piously followed as our culture demands. Instead, it’s important to find the school that’s best for you, and if it happens to have fantastic ratings, then so be it.

Bordelon is a philosophy sophomore from Houston.