The US News & World Report released its 2024 ranking of “best colleges” rankings on Monday, and several Massachusetts institutions ranked high on the national list, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at No. 2 and Harvard University at No. 3. But experts recommend parents and students take the list with a grain of salt.
US News’ 40-year-old list of “best colleges” has long been the most influential ranking of colleges. Not only does the list affect which schools students and families view as being prestigious, but the list has also incentivized college admissions workers to favor wealthier students in admissions, based on ranking criteria that correlates with student income level.
This year, the US News looked at about 1,500 colleges and ranked them on 19 criteria that have changed since last year’s report. This year, the criteria weigh social mobility more heavily and focus less on class size or the amount of donations alumni give, among other metrics.
Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-founder of Spark Admissions in Chestnut Hill, said that it is far more important for students and families to consider their individual needs over a ranking of institutions.
“Every student is different and what you might need or what your son or daughter might need is different from what their peers might need,” Rubin said. “When a family says they really want their son or daughter to go to Harvard, I’ll ask, ‘what components of Harvard’s education entice you?’ and a lot of times they say, ‘the name.’”
Many officials from institutions like Reed University in Portland, Ore., have not sent the US News data on their university for over a decade because they do not agree with the one-size-fits-all nature of prospective students judging institutions based off of a list, according to Rubin.
When colleges like Reed neglect to send in data, their rankings are sizably compromised. The public can not identify which colleges sent in data and which colleges did not by just viewing the list.
Additionally, colleges are able to self-report data and it is therefore not verified. Rubin said that in 2021, Columbia University faced scrutiny for self-reporting fraudulent data on its class sizes, for example.
Because of instances like fraudulent data and inconsistencies between universities that reported data and those that chose not to, the rankings fluctuate dramatically every year. Rubin said that the public should consider this when reading the list.
“The fact that customarily the rankings have changed so rapidly over time indicates that schools are gaming the system rather than improving quality of education,” Rubin said.
Some criteria can also encourage schools to admit more students from higher income backgrounds. For example, one of the criteria US News judges institutions on is students’ performance on standardized tests, which correlate more closely with a family’s income than with a student’s high school grades. The rankings no longer judge schools based on acceptance rates, which had pushed universities to accept more early decision applications in an attempt to lower their acceptance rates, which hurt lower-income students who applied to more schools in order to compare financial aid packages.
US News made several changes to the criteria it uses to rank colleges, such as introducing new metrics tied to first-generation students and whether new college graduates are earning more than people who only have a high school degree. The new criteria also place more weight on retention of and graduation rates for students who received need-based Pell grants and less emphasis on overall graduation rates and financial resources per student.
“Some factors they are looking at are a college’s ability to improve social mobility, which I think is a really fantastic change,” Rubin said. “This includes measuring grant recipients’ graduation rates and performances, first generation graduation rates, first generation earning potential, and a variety of things that gear toward the social mobility piece more than it ever has before.”
US News also decided to nix some of the old criteria this year. Notably, it decided to eliminate class size, a metric that historically boosted the rankings of private universities that pride themselves in their small class sizes. Washington University in St. Louis, which was 15 last year, dropped to 24.
US News also decided to not include faculty with terminal degrees, alumni giving, high school class standing, and the proportion of graduates who borrow federal loans into its criteria for ranking institutions.
There were few changes at the top of many of the lists despite adjustments in ranking criteria: Princeton University maintained its spot as the nation’s top-ranked university, followed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then Harvard University and Stanford University tied for third.
Williams College in Williamstown maintained its spot as the top-ranked liberal arts college in the nation, and Spelman College held its spot as the leading historically Black institution.
Although these private schools stayed on top, the rankings of many public universities, many of which were raked considerably low in years prior, jump up the ranks — CUNY-City College was formerly ranked 151 and now its 105, Rubin said.
This is because one of the new criteria used to rank institutions measures the programs that colleges enact to transform the lives of socially disadvantaged students. Rubin said that many private universities talk up these programs, but this new criterion is meant to hold them accountable for any shortcomings in this aspect.
Rubin said that she believes that the criteria adjustment is largely in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to upend affirmative action in the college admissions process.
For prospective college students who do not have the resources to meet with a college admissions councilor, Rubin recommends students cross reference US News’ list with rankings published by The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Global University Ranking, and reviewing Loren Pope’s book, “Colleges That Change Lives.”