U.S. News College Rankings and Their Meaning

U.S . News & World report first published their America’s Best Colleges issue in 1983.   Since then, parents and students have been using this issue as a way to sort out schools in an organized way. 

Of course, as soon as the issue comes out, colleges see them too.  And the forces there begin strategizing how they might raise their college up in the ranks in the next issue.

U.S. News bases its rankings on multiple statistical measuring sticks, each weighted differently, and spread across seven major categories. These include: academic reputation, student selectivity, student retention, faculty resources, financial resources, alumni giving and graduation rates.

Clemson University’s fast rise in rankings from “38’ to “22” gives s a clearer picture of how rankings can be manipulated for more harm than good in terms of influencing public perception and student choice. 

As the New York Times reports, Clemson centered on reducing class sizes — many of them to below 20, a U.S. News benchmark. Clemson, according to the article, has also “more or less” stopped admitting “full-time, first-time undergraduates who are not in the top third of their high school classes” and is “constantly reassessing its SAT average through the admissions cycle.” 

The university has also reported to U.S.  News that it has ratcheted up the faculty salaries by about $20,000, which it has achieved by actually increasing spending (paid for largely through increased tuition), continues the article. 

Clemson also runs “multiple definitions to figure out where [they] can move things around to make them look best” in the rankings. The university has also encouraged as many alumni as possible to send in at least $5 to help bring up their giving rate.

In a separate article, the rankings of U.S. News have been criticized for making up numbers in the absence of real data.  In this case, Sarah Lawrence’s president, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post that because her college no longer collects or examines SAT scores, U.S. News officials have said that the magazine will just assume that the average SAT would have been one standard deviation (about 200 points) below the average of Sarah’s Lawrence’s peers.  In the rankings this translates to a college losing points in the category of “selectivity” because the report assumes that not using SAT score means a college is admitting less capable students.  Of course, this shouldn’t be presumed true. 

In this college counselor’s opinion, U.S News rankings are nothing more than beauty pageant as valuable as  Miss America.  The only way to truly rank colleges is in what the value is to you. Prospective students and families need to assess what really counts which is how well a college meets a student’s learning style and academic interests, how available the faculty are outside the classroom, whether students can get the courses they need to graduate, and what graduate schools and employers welcome its graduates.

If you have any other college admissions questions for a college counselor, I’d be happy to answer them.  Please write me here or at my personal email which can be found on my International College Counselors college counseling website.

Mandee Heller Adler, Founder and Principal of International College Counselors





The original article sourced by the times and by me can be seen at



The other article referenced can be found at



In this interesting article, mathematicians have taken on the U.S. News & World Report for a whole different take on the rankings: