US News & World Report on Monday released the results of what it said was the most substantial overhaul of its 40-year-old college rankings empire.
At the top, there was little change as Princeton remained the top-ranked university in the country, followed by MIT, with Harvard and Stanford tied for third place. Williams maintained its status as the nation’s leading liberal arts college, and Spelman College once again led among historically black institutions.
But more than a dozen public universities, many of them with relatively low profiles, rose at least 50 spots in the rankings. Fresno State rose 64 spots to No. 185, for example, and Florida Atlantic rose 53 to No. 209. Many other public institutions posted smaller but notable gains, such as Rutgers, which saw each of its three campuses rise in at least 15 seats.
They benefited from an algorithm that caused the rankings of some private universities to plummet, but they represented an effort to account for deals that higher education leaders routinely talk about, such as transforming the lives of economically disadvantaged students.
The reworked formula placed greater emphasis on the graduation rates of students who received need-based Pell Grants and retention. It also introduced metrics tied to first-generation college students and whether recent graduates earned more than people who had only completed high school.
The most seismic changes involved schools that were not at the extremes of the previous rankings, as they were not extraordinarily weak or strong on a wide range of criteria. Occupying the middle rungs of the rankings meant that changes in methodology, such as removing alumni donations as a criterion, could easily cause dramatic rises and falls.
However, it was unclear to what extent the reform would reduce criticism of US News. Schools have said the rankings have a huge influence on students and parents, who use them as an indicator of prestige. And critics say they can distort universities’ priorities and the way they admit students.
L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College, said the updated methodology was “slightly better.” The liberal arts school said in February it would stop sending information to US News.
“This doesn’t alleviate my concerns, and that’s why we haven’t rejoined,” said Richardson, whose institution fell two spots to 29th among liberal arts colleges. “But I’m certainly delighted that they are starting to listen to what higher education leaders have been telling them.”
Even if some public universities like Fresno State benefited this year, many university leaders reject the idea of ranking universities as if education were mass-produced consumer products. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber complained in a 2021 report. opinion article in The Washington Post that “the rankings game is a bit petty: a slightly silly obsession that hurts when colleges, parents or students take it too seriously.”
Designating any university as “best,” he added, was “strange.”
But the colleges that soared welcomed their new rankings. Antonio D. Tillis, chancellor of the Rutgers campus in Camden, New Jersey, said officials were “ecstatic” and that the increase “reflects an intentional dedication to access and affordability, student success, academic excellence and student engagement.” the voters.”
US News relies on proprietary formulas for its wide-ranging for-profit ratings business, which rates everything from mutual funds to pediatric gastroenterology services. The publisher’s college rankings are widely viewed as the most influential in the United States, and administrators, however philosophically hostile they may be toward the rankings, often adopt them as marketing tools. For the most part, even universities whose law or medical schools have promised in recent months to stop sharing information with US News. contributed data about its undergraduate programs.
Eric J. Gertler, chief executive of US News, emphatically denied that the publisher had made adjustments to its formula to try to retain support from universities. US News had said it would rank schools whether they provided information or not.
The company ruled out five factors that often favored wealthy colleges and that together accounted for 18 percent of a school’s score, including undergraduate class sizes, alumni donation rates and class standing in secondary school.
This year’s formula, which relied more on data sources beyond schools’ submissions, also gave less weight to overall graduation rates and financial resources per student, which looks at how much, on average, a college spends per student in costs such as instruction and research.
Private universities were particularly vulnerable to the new formula. Small class sizes, which a year ago accounted for 8 percent of the score, are a source of pride for many elite institutions. Its disappearance from the algorithm influenced the drop in rankings of some top schools.
The University of Chicago, No. 6 last year, dropped to No. 12. Dartmouth dropped six spots to finish at No. 18. Washington University in St. Louis, which was No. 15 last year, fell to No. 24. Brandeis, now ranked No. 60, fell 16 spots, almost as many as Wake Forest, which dropped 18 spots to tie for No. 47. Tulane moved to No. 73 from No. 44.
Michael A. Fitts, president of Tulane, said he was “shocked” by his university’s decline, which he attributed to “a radically different methodology” that undermines schools like his. Large public universities, he argued, were better prepared to meet the ambitions abruptly introduced by the US News rankings, but he said the caliber of a place like Tulane had not diminished overnight.
“Do you now have the best of both worlds or the worst of all worlds?” she asked, referring to US News. “Are they combining different criteria by looking at, essentially, their ability to enroll a large, large class of students? Or are you observing the academic quality of the students while they are there?
To the irritation of many administrators, US News maintained, with the same weight as last year, a survey of presidents, chancellors and deans, who are asked to consider the academic caliber of other institutions. Critics have long claimed that the survey, which accounts for 20 percent of a school’s score, introduces a decidedly subjective element into the system.
Gertler noted that the survey’s importance had declined throughout the rankings’ history, but defended its continued inclusion as “reputation matters in society.”
Some of the best-known universities in the country saw their fortunes improve. Columbia, which was ranked No. 2 before falling to No. 18 after acknowledging a history of reporting inaccurate data, regained No. 12. The University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, tied for the No. 1 spot. 12. the best public schools in the country after they jumped five places each to 15th place.
In Florida, New College, the target of ideological and administrative reform championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate, fell 24 spots to tie for 100th among liberal arts schools.
The university, like many others that experienced significant drops in rankings, did not respond to a request for comment. Chicago, the only institution to drop out of the Top 10, issued a statement criticizing the change in methodology for its fall.
“We believe in and remain committed to academics and the fundamentals that have long defined the UChicago experience, such as our smaller class size and the educational level of instructors, considerations that were removed from US News & ranking metrics. World Report this year,” the university said.
Wake Forest expressed similar concerns.
“Wake Forest has never made decisions or determined university strategy based on rankings like those of US News,” said university president Susan R. Wente. “We have no intention of starting now.”
US News is used to complaints. However, the publisher has given no signs that he is interested in abandoning a system that generates millions of views and dollars.
Maia Coleman contributed reports.