College Rankings: Got to Love ‘Em, Got to Hate ‘Em

The national rankings encompass 311 institutions. The regional (South) rankings include 149.

The big news in the higher-ed world today is the publication of the 2018 U.S. News & World-Report college rankings, which, despite the many misgivings of anyone who knows anything about academia, remains the most widely followed consumer guide to higher education in America.

The University of Virginia, the commonwealth’s flagship institution, fell a notch to 25th place. Virginia Commonwealth University descended seven steps on the ladder, but Virginia Tech rose five and George Mason University ascended three.

Now, having legitimized the U.S News list by duly reporting the Virginia public college rankings, permit me to denounce it. While the online publication’s profiles of individual institutions contain much useful information, the obsession with rankings has a baleful effect on higher education generally.

Here’s the problem: With the exception of a few for-profit trade schools, higher-ed is a not-profit industry. Colleges and universities do not have shareholders. Therefore, they are not profit maximizing organizations. To people who think that “profit” is a dirty word, associated with exploitation and rapaciousness, the nonprofit status is a good thing. But it’s not as if colleges and universities, both public and private, have used their nonprofit status to hold down tuition & fees. Higher education has been one of the most inflationary sectors of the entire U.S. economy, and higher tuition & fees have been paid largely by the expedient of saddling students with unconscionable levels of debt.

It’s not as if the titans of higher-ed, mindful of their nonprofit status, restrain their appetites for more revenue. They just allocate the money differently. Instead of maximizing profits and returns to shareholders, they maximize the prestige of the institutions with which they are associated and maximize their bureaucratic fiefdoms within those institutions. No matter how much money they bring in, university administrators can always find ways to spend more.

The competition for prestige is a never-ending endeavor, and lists like U.S. News‘ feed the frenzy. No university board of visitors is ever content doing what it has always been doing. Every institution must conceive grand plans to erect new buildings, recruit prestigious faculty, lure smarter, more accomplished students, amass ever larger endowments, and create new, cutting-edge programs. There is never enough money to do all these things — especially when peer institutions are all competing to stand out by the same means. To stand still is to fall behind. To run is to stay in place. Only by sprinting ahead can an institution gain in prestige.

So, by U.S. News standards, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, despite all their frenetic activity to build their institutions, fell behind this year. They are deemed less prestigious than they were last year. While the publication does compile separate lists for “best value” and “A-plus schools for B students,” these are given far less prominence, and they get far less media attention. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch article, for example, focuses mainly upon the top-line rankings, never mentioning the more arcane rankings.)

In their lust for status and prestige, colleges and universities plow resources into programs and amenities that provide a diminishing return from an educational perspective. And the cost of education becomes out of reach for an ever-growing share of the population.

Update: Politico argues that the U.S. News ranking reinforce the tendency of colleges to vie for the same top applicants, who overlap to a significant degree with the wealthiest applicants.

For instance, Southern Methodist University in Dallas conducted a billion-dollar fundraising drive devoted to many of the areas ranked by U.S. News, including spending more on faculty and recruiting students with higher SAT scores — and jumped in the rankings. Meanwhile, Georgia State University, which has become a national model for graduating more low- and moderate-income students, dropped 30 spots.

The Politico article provides a database comparing the percentage of students accepted from the Top 1% and the Bottom 60%. Thus, we can see, for example, that the percentage of the Top 1% rose slightly at the College of William & Mary between 2000 and 2011, while the percentage of the bottom 60% declined commensurately.

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13 responses to “College Rankings: Got to Love ‘Em, Got to Hate ‘Em”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    An Excellent Post, right on target!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t have the same view of “non-profit” and “prestige” and low prices.

    the impetus of ANY entity regardless of it’s profit or non-profit status is to grow and become bigger and stronger at what it is or aspires to accomplish in it’s mission.

    In that regard – bigger and stronger and more demand for it’s products and services is just as potent a motivator as profit might be especially if the people operating that entity are well-compensated for their efforts!

    I guess some would call it a kind of a “conspiracy” to enrich themselves rather than would-be “investors”, eh?

    Non-profit does not connote any more expectation of “lower prices” than say Verizon Cellular or Comcast Cable has become… or for that matter a lot of other products… from hearing aids to payday loans.

    Higher Ed will continue to charge high prices – as long as there is demand – and if that comes at the expense of customers or even other failed competitors like smaller private or even public institutions of higher learning.. guess what… they will!

    Not really sure what folks would have govt do about this… and especially those who say they are fiscal conservatives who hair would catch on fire if it was suggested the govt control prices or regulate in such a way to control prices…

    oh wait.. we tried that with Dominion and look what happened!

    Gawd Forbid we give Higher Ed the same deal!

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    An informed consumer KNOWS there are more than a view “raters” of colleges and higher ed .. the College Scorecard is one and another is Niche who publishes 2018 Best Value Colleges in America at

  4. While there are other ratings, it appears to me that from a prestige standpoint, USNews rules the roost. The others are far less influential.

    You get points in USNews just for spending more money. If you achieve the same outcomes, but spend less, you are actually rated lower. This is how Georgia State got crushed. And just to be clear, this money (resources) may have nothing to do with education. Most of the high resource (and high ranked) schools have medical schools and hospitals. It may be more of a commentary on the massive medical-industrial complex than actual undergraduate education quality. (There are exceptions like Princeton, but they can play the resources game because they have a $25B endowment for just over 8,000 students.)

    Jim showed the Top 1%/Bottom 60% graph for William and Mary, which shows bottom 60% is higher than Top 1%, as you would expect at a public school. Princeton and Southern Methodist are reversed, with Top 1% comprising a higher percentage than Bottom 60%. What is interesting, though, is that private SMU has a higher percentage of students from the Bottom 60% than public W&M, UVA, or the University of Michigan. In that sense, it is more of an opportunity engine than the public schools, which evidently are geared more toward middle/upper middle income categories.

    I have a couple of other observations on USNews. First, if there is a star performer in Virginia, it appears to be Christopher Newport University, which I think used to do extension classes for W&M and is now #11 in regional universities, above schools like Mary Washington and Radford, which have longer histories. Second, UVA and W&M (particularly W&M) are big outperformers in the rankings from the perspective of resources. They are ranked way above their resources (spending per student) levels.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    UVA’s problem is its trend. It drops and drops and drops. Some would say that all the public schools are dropping relative to the private schools but that’s not really true. When you look at the historical rankings the first thing to notice is that USN&WR didn’t rank all the big, well regarded public and private schools until 1997 or so. While USN&WR did rate some schools as early as 1983 William & Mary wasn’t consistently rated until 1996.

    Let’s start in 1997 when USN&WR had a mostly complete dataset of top public and private universities.

    Berkely 27 —> 22 (+5)
    Michigan 24 —> 28 (-4)
    Illinois 50 —> 53 (-3)
    Wisconsin 41 —> 50 (-9)
    Washington 42 —> 59 (-17)
    William & Mary 33 —> 33 (0)
    UNC 25 —> 31 (-6)
    UCLA 31 —> 23 (+8)
    UVA 21 —> 26 (-5)

    While the general trend is down for public universities there are some noteworthy exceptions, particularly in California. What is California doing that lets their top rated public universities climb in the ratings while most other states are seeing their universities fall?

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      As someone’s who’s consulted for universities, I’d point out a few things:

      1. Since 1997, no public university has been ranked higher than 20th. So, you have to view 20th as a ceiling for public universities with U.S. News changing its methodology to weight resources more (and by weighting resources more, that helped accelerate the building/fundraising arms race raised by Mr. Bacon).

      2. For the last decade Georgetown, Berkeley, UCLA, U.Va., Carnegie Mellon, USC, and Emory have been in the upper to mid 20s. There’s no change in this year’s rankings of any substance. The California schools and Emory are ranked one notch (all tied for 21st) ahead of U.Va./Carnegie Mellon.

      3. Izzo hits on the UCs advantage over U.Va….Demographics. Much larger pool….plus California banned race-based admissions….so both UC-Berkeley and UCLA are at 35+% Asian student bodies. Plus, California isn’t as parochial as Virginia. The UC schools feel no pressure to admit kids from “across the state.” They simply take the highest SAT scores/GPAs. Whereas U.Va. and W&M both get pressure to take kids from rural VA.

      4. I also don’t know that the UCs or Michigan are great comparators for U.Va. Those 3 schools are huge. UCs have the enormous demographic advantage over U.Va. Michigan may very well become the first “state” school with less than 50% in-state kids….their in-state % drops every year. The Virginia General Assembly has shown no such ability to let U.Va. admit the most qualified students regardless of residence.

      If you really want an “apples-to-apples” comparison for U.Va., compare it to UNC. They’re very similar schools in many ways.

  6. Good question. I think in general trends favor the more urban schools and the selective private schools. UCLA got 102K applications for about 6K spots, so about 17 applicants per spot. UVA got about 37K applications for a little less than 4K spots, so a little over 9 applicants per spot.

    The first time I saw Northeastern University (a private school) in Boston it looked like an abandoned industrial area. Now it has come up about 100 spots in USNews rankings and, I think, has significantly higher SAT scores than UVA and W&M (assuming the stats are accurate).

  7. Virginia has very good public university options for students and parents, but it doesn’t really have a setup that turns the economic crank the same way, for instance, UT Austin and the local community colleges do in Austin. There just isn’t a way around that in the near future.

  8. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    This whole exercise is absolutely meaningless, but the schools and their boards are obsessed with it. Angels dancing on the heads of pinhead academics. Give me the list of best party schools! That matters just as much. A student willing to do the work can get a first rate education at any one of hundreds of schools, perhaps 1,ooo or more. A student who goofs off and slides through Harvard or Yale comes out the same loser he or she went in.

    I picked W&M 46 years ago because it was a 1) state school 2) far away from Roanoke with a 3) 50-50 gender ratio. UVA was just starting to admit women. Hell, ten days in I met my future wife and the remaining 49.99 percent no longer mattered….

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    you guys might check out the Niche 2018 Best Value Colleges in America

    Washington and Lee rank 4 and is the only Virginia college to break the top 25.
    VMI is 29 and William and Mary 42, UVA46.

    The NICHE process for rating is fully explained but what it really points out is that all of these ratings are somewhat arbitrary and subjective and that perhaps basing one’s view on one rating like USN&WR is perhaps a choice but a limiting one.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Us News occasionally used to do some good journalism. A shell of its former self, all it does are these self-serving ratings, further fueling the college status and snobbery mania. Who cares if UVA moves up or VCU moves down?

  11. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    For the first time, I just came across Steve Haner’s comment that he penned way back on September 13, 2017 on the nonsense of ratings generally. I think his comment puts the entire situation regarding this subject in wonderful perspective for the great majority of out students.

    So I endorse his opinion subject only the caveat that:

    Ratings can be useful to the highly talented and unusually serious and ambitious high school kid who is looking for the best (top) college programs in STEM, and/or also looking for certain very highly rated programs in the liberal arts, of which there are very few.

    Otherwise, I suggest that Steve’s comment is a good baseline on which most kids, and their parents, might begin their quest for the right school for their kid, given all circumstances relevant the prospective student involved.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Here is Steve’s comment that I referred to immediately above.

      Steve Haner | September 13, 2017 at 6:58 am |

      This whole exercise is absolutely meaningless, but the schools and their boards are obsessed with it. Angels dancing on the heads of pinhead academics. Give me the list of best party schools! That matters just as much. A student willing to do the work can get a first rate education at any one of hundreds of schools, perhaps 1,ooo or more. A student who goofs off and slides through Harvard or Yale comes out the same loser he or she went in.

      I picked W&M 46 years ago because it was a 1) state school 2) far away from Roanoke with a 3) 50-50 gender ratio. UVA was just starting to admit women. Hell, ten days in I met my future wife and the remaining 49.99 percent no longer mattered….

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