For decades, elite universities have basked in the limelight of U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of best colleges. The rankings have effectively served as marketing machines for wealthy institutions even as their exclusivity — and tuition — soared.
Now, amid growing criticism about inequities in higher education and the arbitrary nature of the rankings, some schools are doing the once unthinkable: refusing to participate.
Harvard and Yale law schools led the revolt in November and were soon joined by a roster of top medical schools. Critics say the uprising signals a weakening of the ranking industry’s grip on college admissions, but caution that it won’t be broken until undergraduate colleges hop on the bandwagon.
The withdrawal from the rankings by the professional schools are “an enormous sea change,” said Colin Diver, former president of Reed College in Portland, Ore., one of the first schools to withdraw its participation, in 1995. “This was kind of a dream up until quite recently. Now, I can call it a hope.”
Schools and experts cite flawed methodology and perverse incentives as reasons to abandon the rankings, which have long influenced how the public view US colleges and universities. For almost as long, critics have argued that the rankings favor wealth and prestige over educational quality and access.
“The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed: they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession,” Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken wrote in a November statement explaining the school’s decision to stop participating in the magazine’s rankings.
Harvard Law announced it was pulling out of the rankings sweepstakes on the same day, saying it became “impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect.” Several more law schools followed, including Stanford, Georgetown, and Northwestern.
U.S. News & World Report did not respond to a request for comment. The organization has previously said it will continue ranking boycotting schools, using publicly available data.
The publication uses surveys from colleges and third-party data sources to rank schools on a wide variety of factors, including graduation and retention rates, selectivity, and financial resources. The methodology also includes peer-review surveys where deans and college presidents rate the quality of academic programs at other colleges, a practice that has garnered criticism for being subjective and biased.
U.S. News has said it’s updated its approach to the rankings over the years, including adding social mobility as one of about 17 factors it considers.
For a wave of undergraduate programs to rebuke the rankings, it would need to start with the top-ranked schools, said Vincent D. Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Rougeau said his school has struggled with whether to participate in the rankings or not.
On the one hand, Rougeau doesn’t want to give prospective students the impression Holy Cross has anything to hide by not participating in a popular resource. But he is concerned the rankings don’t “fully explain what we do or what we offer.”
Rougeau, who previously served as dean of Boston College Law School, said rankings would better serve their purpose if they came from an organization that doesn’t profit off the lists. Holy Cross ranked 33rd for “best national liberal arts colleges.”
“The rankings of the top schools never really change. They’re the foundation of the whole system,” he said. “If they don’t participate, it makes it much harder to justify other schools being a part of this.”
The nation’s elite undergraduate schools are so far staying mum.
The Globe reached out to 30 selective colleges and universities, including the top 25 from the most recent U.S. News list, for comment. None made an official available for an interview. Dartmouth College and Brown University said in statements that they have no plans to exit the rankings.
The chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, Carol Christ, expressed concerns about the rankings in a statement to the Globe, including the algorithm used to rate schools and the reliance on “wealth” and “selectivity.”
“Individuals with experience in university operations know that it would and should take years for schools to move in the rankings, but the changes in algorithm create annual movement in the numbers,” Christ said.
Other higher education leaders feel the rankings fail to capture aspects of campus community and culture. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island School of Design said it will no longer participate in the rankings, saying it has “very little in common” with other schools in its U.S. News category.
Danielle Ren Holley, incoming president of Mount Holyoke College, said the rankings overlook the importance of students who “may not have been traditionally welcomed” on college campuses finding a place where they feel they belong. The South Hadley college ranked 36th on the most recent list of national liberal arts colleges.
“I always tell people, when you’re looking at women’s colleges, or at [historically Black colleges and universities], the rankings can’t even begin to capture what it means to be a member of these communities,” Holley said. “I think more students are concerned about things that rankings can’t capture.”
Holley declined to comment on whether Mount Holyoke would end its participation in the rankings.
Many colleges rely on the rankings to boost their brands and attract prospective students. For students and families, the rankings provide a quick way to compare hundreds of colleges during the search process. Other organizations have created resources for students to compare and research colleges, including a Social Mobility Index from CollegeNet, but none so far have the wide-reaching influence of U.S. News.
For that reason, Marisa Kelly, president of Suffolk University, said she doesn’t see the rankings going away “any time soon.” She hopes the ongoing debate will prompt focus more on graduation outcomes and economic mobility. Suffolk ranked 234th on the list of national universities.
“I don’t see a huge wave of people refusing to provide their data,” Kelly said. “Public pressure will matter much more than what college presidents say.”
So where should families turn, if not the rankings? The Department of Education created a “college scorecard” to help prospective students and families compare graduation rates, average debt loads for students, and median earnings of graduates. Two college counselors told the Globe they tell students to comb through colleges’ websites to learn about academic programs, extracurriculars, and campus culture.
“Those rankings change year to year . . . so it’s hard to fixate on them,” said Christine Chapman, with Chapman Education in Hopkinton.
Recent scandals have raised questions about how the rankings incentivize unethical behavior from college leaders seeking to game the system to improve their school’s brand, said Diver, the former Reed College president.
The rankings “have caused educational institutions to distort themselves in an attempt to improve their rankings and the distortions have sometimes taken the form of fudging the data out like outright lying or massaging the data,” said Diver, author of “Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do about It.”
Columbia University admitted last year that it submitted inaccurate information to U.S. News after a math professor publicly raised concerns the university was trying to influence its rank with misleading data.
In Philadelphia, the former dean at Temple University’s Fox School of Business was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison last year for creating a scheme to boost the school’s rankings and defraud students and donors based on that reputation.
Diver, who also was dean of the law schools at Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, said that more rejections of U.S. News could “fundamentally weaken the credibility” of the rankings, prompting aspiring students and families to seek information elsewhere.
“My hope is they will fade a little bit into the background, rather than being the headline news,” he said.