What’s the deal with college rankings?
Brandeis dropped sixteen places in the U.S. News’ 2024 list of national universities – but does anyone care? More importantly, should they?
Last Monday, University President Ron Liebowitz made an appearance in students’ inboxes, informing them of Brandeis’ substantial drop of sixteen spots in the 2024 U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of universities. He cited changes to the ranking methodology, specifically the exclusion of class sizes and the inclusion of recognition in research citations, as reasoning for the plunge from number 44 to number 60 in the nation. While lightly challenging the syntax of the criteria, stating that “our actual graduation rate is significantly higher than that of most other institutions, the focus on ‘expected graduation rate’ negatively impacts our score,” Liebowitz still narrated a concerted effort by Brandeis to adhere to the standards of the list. “We see other areas of opportunity,” he wrote.“We have been working with faculty to connect their scholarship profiles to Brandeis, as the number of research citations is now an increased part of the methodology.”
This game of push and pull with the U.S. News list is not unique — in recent years, many other institutions have shown simultaneous signs of revolt and submission. In 2022, Yale Law School and Harvard Law School withdrew from the list, meaning they elected to stop voluntarily submitting the data that makes up criteria for ranking — though U.S. News vows to rank them anyway, as much of the data is available publicly or through third parties. However, Yale and Harvard continue to participate in the undergraduate ranking, declining to comment to The New York Times exactly why. Even Columbia University, ranked one of the best schools in the world, was disgraced by one of its own faculty in 2022 for doctoring its data to achieve a higher ranking. After this, it fell from the number 2 spot to number 18, after which it withdrew entirely. A similar incident at Temple University, as well as Reed College’s early withdrawal in 1995 from the list and subsequent low ranking, indicate the power of the list, and the rewards it promises to those it deems worthy.
But, the relationship between ranker and ranked is more symbiotic than one might assume. For the schools, a high ranking means cultural relevance and even an increase in applications, as shown in a 2014 study by the American Educational Research Association. The schools are clamoring to stay on the list despite guidance counselors and school deans increasingly warning of its flawed methodology, so there’s clearly a draw for them in its stature within the college admissions industry. U.S. News’ continued output of annual rankings since 1983, however, has morphed into something much larger than just a list — it’s pure capital. Universities, hotels, law firms, and even hospitals can pay to license the U.S. News “best of” badge in order to promote their inclusion on one of the publication’s lists.
“When you start seeing those kinds of licensing deals from a news publication, it’s evidence that they’re becoming increasingly reliant on that as a source of revenue,” Eric Stoller, a marketing executive at Territorium, told The Observer in February.
In 2013, the company saw 20 million viewers a month and made 20% of its revenue from online searches for lists, while another 30% came from online advertising, according to the Washington Post. College Compass, with its $40/month subscription to more detailed college rankings — with access to data about extracurriculars, for example — is another main draw for U.S. News, especially since they suspended their print magazine in 2010 after financial losses. As put by Reed’s former president Colin Diver, the college list is “the jewel to their crown.”
For high school students applying to college, rankings can help to make sense of a vast, unknown new space. Syracuse junior Dyana Gales said that after getting rejected from her top two schools, she blindly picked the highest ranked school that she had been accepted to, which was Syracuse. “I honestly had no idea what I was doing, so I just followed the list,” she told the Justice in a Sept. 29 interview. The simplicity of a numbered list tends to preclude nuance from the college discussion, though their website claims that “the rankings should be used as a tool for discovering the best fit schools; combined with personal considerations and additional resources.”
However, after students actually get into schools, rankings tend to lose their significance. When Liebowitz’s email went out on Sept. 25, many students were hearing the news for the first time. “I would probably never have found out about it if he hadn’t sent that,” said David Feit Mann ’25. The somber tone of the email was even the subject of jokes among students — “why was he acting like somebody died?” said Anya Lefkowitz ’25.
Students from around the nation on TikTok echoed a sense of apathy about their own schools’ rankings dropping. TikTok user @misguidedghvsts posted on Sept. 19: “My college dropped 33 places and I think it’s hilarious. I am having the time of my life here.”
Other Brandeis students expressed that the talk of rankings was hollow and felt like a distraction from real issues on campus. “I was upset about his email because it seems like all administration cares about is our ranking, as opposed to actual struggles and issues students are facing on campus,” said Grace Lassila ’25. “No one cares what our ranking is when campus is inaccessible,” Meryam Bnyamin ’24 told the Justice in a joint Oct. 1 interview. “The last few semesters they have been blatantly ignoring students when we voice our concerns. Rather than shifting blame, it would be nice if they could take steps toward actual change for us.”
Despite this, and mounting skepticism of college admissions in general, U.S. News shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, their methodological overhaul for this year’s list reflects a renewed interest in student welfare and relevance to real applicant needs. For years, the publication has articulated their motivations in producing the list the same way: “For most of these students and their families — other than buying a home — attending college is the most consequential investment they will ever make,” said Chief Executive Eric Gertler.
The terminology of investment is very purposeful, and also very topical to the changes made for 2024’s list. U.S. News actually demonstrated pointed commitment to modifying their list for low-income students, after decades-long criticism of insular class divisions motivating their decisions. This year, the addition of first-generation student performance and average student loan debt, and the elimination of class size and alumni giving average as factors, are extremely consequential for selective, wealthy private schools like Brandeis.
Additionally, U.S. News elected to reduce the weight of financial resources, referring to the amount of money spent on each student. At first glance, this seems counterintuitive, but their methodology page states that “the reduction in weight recognizes the importance of affordability for prospective students — especially those from lower-income households — and the correlation between a school's cost and its ability to spend.” A study actually done by U.S. News showed that tuition rates at private universities have jumped 40 percent in the last twenty years, and in shifting their criteria for 2024, they referenced a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics which found that over 95 percent of respondents rated the cost of attendance to be a “somewhat important” or “very important” factor in their choice of college. The shift to accommodate schools with less resources actually reflects this applicant base more accurately. With the new system in place, schools that traditionally don’t get this kind of recognition made huge strides, with California State University, East Bay jumping 88 places, University of Texas at San Antonio jumping 92 places, and Florida Gulf Coast University jumping 80 places.
While privileged schools like Brandeis, Washington University, Tulane, and Vanderbilt — where actual outrage occurred over the drop — were penalized under the new system, perhaps it reflects a very small step toward equalizing the college process. U.S. News is still a corporation that profits off of its lists, but as long as students are watching, it seems that the publisher sees visibility of different types of schools — not just the Harvards and Princetons — as a priority. In the same Oct. 1 joint interview, Jessica Walsh ’25 said, “I think these changes to the formula are something [Brandeis] should put more of a focus on for improving rather than attributing the whole thing to class size or citations.”