To the Editor:
The U.S. News & World Report college rankings published recently, and so began the season of complaining about them (“Vanderbilt’s Chancellor Defends His Takedown of the Revamped ‘U.S. News’ Rankings” (The Chronicle, September 19).
For those frustrated by the U.S. News college rankings, the parachute option is en vogue. If a college doesn’t like the rankings methodology — or perhaps its own ranking — it “withdraws” from the rankings, though the trend hasn’t caught on with undergraduate institutions. “Withdraw” earns qualifying quotation marks because the rankings information is publicly available from sources including the Common Data Set, so U.S. News still ranks them.
From the vantage point of a 10-year journey from middle-of-the-pack to top quartile, I wish to make the case for reform rather than retreat from college rankings.
I have been among those crying foul at U.S. News’ rankings, asking — among other things — for U.S. News to reward the universities that succeed at graduating low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students into lives better than they have known. In a 2015 Washington Post article titled “UC Riverside vs. U.S. News,” I was quoted following our slide from No. 94 to No. 121 in the U.S. News rankings. At the time, I said: “Whatever this system values is inconsistent with what public universities provide.”
The same year, I participated on a U.S. News panel during which I expressed my frustration with rankings that reward colleges for turning students away, and on the basis of wealth. The following year, members of my leadership team met with the U.S. News editorial board to discuss topics including how to better incorporate social mobility — the degree to which students achieve a better standard of living than they had growing up.
They must have listened to those who advocated for change, because something shifted. UC Riverside, with a student population of about 50 pecent on measures including for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students, was among the benefactors. In the 2019 rankings, UC Riverside climbed 39 positions to No. 85 overall.
That was the year U.S. News pivoted to consider outcomes, or a college’s success at retaining and graduating students within six years. More, the rankings offered greater acknowledgment of social mobility in its methodology. U.S. News also introduced a separate ranking for social mobility in 2019, naming UC Riverside No. 1 for public universities that year, and for the three subsequent years.
That came after several years of concerted effort by UC Riverside not to gain in the U.S. News rankings, but to complete the transition in how we viewed ourselves. We realized we would need to shift from a small-university mindset to one befitting a large university. On some fronts, this track ran parallel to the one U.S. News rewards.
UCR increased research investment in those 10 years from about $130 to $199 million. With 13 recommendations from a graduation-rate task force, including greater support services, offering in-demand courses more frequently, and creating learning communities, we improved our four-year graduation rate by 18.3 percentage points.
The rankings have made movement in response to changing priorities in higher education. But there is plenty of room for improvement.
The rankings yet give the highest ranks to the institutions that take the highest-achieving students and help them meet expectations. U.S. News continues to reward lofty faculty salaries, whereas universities like UCR are more focused on diversity and faculty expansion — UCR’s faculty grew from 1,338 to 1,791 instructional faculty in the past 10 years. “Academic Reputation” — which should be considered an arbitrary measure — accounts for 20 percent of the current U.S. News score.
Acceptance rates were eliminated from the U.S. News methodology several years ago, and the weight of high-school class standing for freshmen and SAT/ACT scores has been reduced. Still, selectivity accounts for 7 percent of the U.S. News score, a measure that plainly discourages institutions from increasing their enrollment, including to underrepresented and low-income communities.
Errors in self-reported data are problematic, as we have seen in the past with several institutions. And there is danger that colleges will steer resources toward improving rankings, rather than forwarding their own mission and values.
But positive change continues. In May 2023, U.S. News announced it will eliminate alumni giving as a measure of higher education excellence. That’s a boon for universities like UCR, which has a younger and less affluent alumni base. Meanwhile, weight will be added to a university’s ability to graduate students from diverse backgrounds.
Measures that consider quality of teaching, faculty engagement, research impacts, and community involvement would create an even more just methodology.
No amount of performative “withdrawing” will interrupt college rankings. Prospective students and their advisers — parents, other family members, school counselors, spouses, and friends — wish for a way to narrow their college choices and want to know more about the education product they are purchasing.
I suggest it is to higher education’s best advantage to keep advocating for reform rather than abandoning a rankings methodology that has evolved — very slowly in the right direction — over the past 40 years. Let us focus our energies on achieving increasingly fair-minded rankings that motivate universities to achieve high scores on the measures that should matter.
University of California at Riverside