After U.S. News college ranking changes, many public universities rose on lists

Many public universities rose in the undergraduate rankings U.S. News & World Report released Monday, while many private ones fell — a sign not of their changing quality but of the changing formula for an annual sorting ritual that in recent years has faced intensifying criticism.

Four of the six schools tied for 47th on the best national universities list illustrated the precipitous ups and downs. For public Virginia Tech, that marked a sudden 15-step climb from its ranking a year ago. Texas A&M University, also public, jumped 20 steps to reach 47th. But for the private University of Rochester, ranking at that level represented an 11-step decline. Wake Forest University, also private, fell 18 steps to land at that point.

Also tied at 47th were private Lehigh University and the public University of Georgia, but their rankings did not change much.

What led to the scramble was a shift in how U.S. News evaluates schools. It no longer considers class size or alumni giving, for example, but it has added a new factor that tracks the graduation rates of first-generation college students at national universities. As ever, the formula continues to rely heavily on a peer evaluation survey that critics say favors wealth and long-standing perceptions of prestige.

The U.S. News lists are a perennial object of chatter and fascination within higher education, prompting envy, scorn or shrugs, depending on the perspective of school leaders, alumni and students who monitor them.

U.S. News college rankings draw new complaints and competitors

Last fall and winter, many prominent law and medical schools that had grown fed up with the rankings announced they would no longer cooperate. Their revolt affected U.S. News lists of graduate and professional programs released in the spring. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona cheered them on.

“It’s time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News & World Report,” Cardona said in March. “It’s time to focus on what truly matters: delivering value and upward mobility.”

But most major colleges and universities did not follow suit at the undergraduate level. One exception was Columbia University, which announced in June that it would not cooperate with the U.S. News undergraduate rankings.

At the time, Columbia officials lamented the “outsized influence” that rankings may have with prospective students. They also criticized how rankings “distill a university’s profile into a composite of data categories” and how “much is lost in this approach.” Their statement followed a deep internal reckoning for the Ivy League university in New York. In 2022, Columbia had acknowledged misstating key data about class size and faculty credentials as it climbed to second place on the national universities list.

But even when schools decline to answer questions from U.S. News, the rankings publication uses publicly available information and continues to include them on its lists.

Last year, Columbia ranked 18th on the U.S. News national university list. On Monday, it ranked 12th, tied with Cornell University (which had been 17th) and the University of Chicago (previously sixth).

There were few surprises at the top of the list. Princeton University ranked first and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology second, with Harvard and Stanford universities tied for third. That mirrored last year’s ranking. Yale University fell ever so slightly, from third to fifth.

But in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, the new ranking formula produced several larger shifts. Among them, the University of Maryland, a public flagship, cracked the top 50, rising nine steps to 46th. American University, previously 72nd, fell to 105th, and Howard University, previously 89th, fell to 115th. Both of those D.C. universities are private. George Mason University, the largest public university in Virginia, rose from 137th to 105th.

Howard’s provost, Anthony K. Wutoh, said the formula changes omitted factors that previously favored the university, including class size. Of the lower ranking, he said: “It didn’t really have anything to do with a change in the way we’re doing business or the quality of our programs.”

American University said its graduation and retention rates have held steady, and it questioned why the rankings show such huge gyrations. “The methodology choices and corresponding inexplicable swings in the rankings indicate either the previous methodologies were flawed and needed a dramatic overhaul or that this year’s results are unreliable because they are so different from everything US News previously produced,” AU spokesman Matt Bennett said in a statement.

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