Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Are College Rankings Bogus?

Are College Rankings Bogus?
Are College Rankings Bogus?
GUESTLynn O'Shaughnessy, author of "The College Solution"

CAVANAUGH: UC San Diego scored big again this year in the U.S. news and world report rankings of the nation's universities. It was ranked 8th best public university. 38th best university overall. San Diego state ranked 165th overall. The U.S. news rankings may well be the most popular ranking system for students and parents hoping to get into the nation's best universities. But do the rankings themselves stand up to close evaluation? Lynn O'Shaughnessy is author of the college constitution, a guide for everyone looking for the right school at the right price. Do these rankings stand up when you look behind the curtain? O'SHAUGHNESSY: No, they certainly don't. In fact the methodology of these rankings are horribly flawed. And I think they actually do a lot to hurt families rather than help families in finding good schools. CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about how these rankings create dream lists, the lists of the most desired colleges and universities for high school students and their parents. I'm sure we can guess, but you can tell us who's generally on the top. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, UCLA are often on their, Notre Dame, north western, duke. They're always the same schools. And part of the problem with the rankings is that students focus on the schools that have the very highest rankings, whether they deserve them or not, and they don't look at all the fabulous schools out there that are doing great things academically that you would actually have a realistic chance of getting in, and they could actually provide better academic environments to children. But they don't look at those. They just look at the top 10 or top 20 and ignore over 2,404-year private colleges and universities in this country. But most of them get very little press. CAVANAUGH: Students aspire to these schools because of their reputation. Now, what is the reputation in the context of these rankings? What is the reputation based on? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Okay. Well, that's one of the big flaws of this whole system. Basically it's schools get their score, the biggest factor is what other schools think of them. And so every year in March, U.S. news sends out a survey to all the schools that they rank. So there was in my book I counted 268 schools in the national university category. They each get three surveys, and they're supposed to rank all of their peer schools. So for the national university category, that would mean UCSD, UCLA, all the UCs are ranking schools like Harvard, Ball State, university of Alabama, Notre Dame, all these schools which how would they know anything about these other institutions? They're busy at their own institutions. So it's just absurd. And so what happens when these administrators are trying to fill out these surveys, and they're supposed to rank their peers on a 1-5 scale, what do they do? They're, like, I don't know how I should rank Ken saw state university. What do they do? They look at previous U.S. news and world report rankings to find out what they should be ranking the school at! It's crazy. CAVANAUGH: It's some sort of incestuous loop there. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Exactly. CAVANAUGH: You're describing how these colleges get ranked by their peer, but what were they ostensibly rank forward? O'SHAUGHNESSY: The general, how do you feel about the school? Academically. But there are other things that I think are also equally hurtful to families. One is that they reward schools that spend a lot of money on their schools. So it helps with the big campus building binges, to have. All of that helps a school inch up in the rankings. CAVANAUGH: So one of the categories is the amount of money spent per student in the school? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Right. CAVANAUGH: And that can be on a new administration building. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Right. And also on faculty salaries. But the thing Sthere is no correlation between what a professor makes and whether he's a good -- or she's a good teacher. In fact, the teachers that typically get the highest pay are those that are doing valued, cutting-edge research, and those are the type of professors that probably do not go near undergrads very often sober it's irrelevant. So why this is destructive, I find, that they put this emphasis on schools that spend more money on their students is that it helps -- the schools are not penalized for spending a lot of money or charging more tuition. So all of this has a cost. They to not penalize schools if they're graduating students with a ton of debt. CAVANAUGH: There is no opposite debt ranking. O'SHAUGHNESSY: No, there's no break on this, right? And when the folks at U.S. news are asked how come you don't put in something about value student debt loads? They're, like, oh, I don't know. I mean, this is not a scientific methodology. CAVANAUGH: Now, in your book, the college solution, you reveal some of the tricks that universities use to try to move up in the rankings. What are some of those? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Okay. Well, actually one that is not good is they manipulate their figures. There are schools that have been caught cheating, or they've acknowledged that they've cheated. A huge example in this area was Clairemont-McKenna last year, which is one of the most highly ranked liberal arts in the country. The Naval academy has been caught for overestimating the number of children that are rejected from that school, which helps with the rankings. Clemson has been caught, Baylor, there's a lot of schools that manipulate. CAVANAUGH: Wasn't Baylor the one that had the freshman class come in and take the SATs automobile over again? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Yes. They were probably excited, contemplating buying their dorm furniture, they were approached by the school, hey, would you mind taking the SAT again? If you do, we'll give you a certificate and a bigger scholarship than if you actually improve on your SAT score. Why in the world would a school be doing that? It's because they wanted these freshmen to improve their test scores so that would look better for U.S. news world report so they could inch up in the rankings. There's a lot of craven behavior going on here. Another one that's I think despicable is that schools are in fact doing this right now, they're sending all of these so-called VIP applications, they're called fast apps in the industry, to high school seniors urging them to apply, saying we've spotted you, we'd like you to come to our school, we're going to not charge you, we're going to give you a shortened application so you'll apply to our school. Why are they doing that? In many cases, it's so these schools can then reject these children so their rejection rates will go up because U.S. news likes schools that reject more students. CAVANAUGH: So is there in your opinion any reason to believe that school No. 15 is better than school No. 35. O'SHAUGHNESSY: No! None. Absolutely not. CAVANAUGH: Okay! [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Well, let me move onto a different ranking then. UC San Diego is No. 38 overall in the U.S. news list. No. 1 as far as Washington monthly is concerned. How does that work? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Well, the UCs were rewarded -- and there were some other UCs in the top 10 of Washington monthly. They were rewarded because of their financial aid policies, that Washington monthly valued, as they do a good job of accepting low-income students, pel grant kids, which they do do a good job, more than the vast majority of schools, particularly research institutions. They do a very good good job of accepting minorities and low-income students. I did have a problem with that though because kids who are low-income who are accepted in the UCs still have to pay a significant amount of money to go to those schools. If you look at the cost of attendance at the UCs, they estimate that students who make -- like who are homeless or even make $30,000 are supposed to come up with about $9,200 to go to that school. So I wrote a blog post that the UCs were not happy about, about this issue. But despite that, the UCs do a very good job of getting low-income students into their campuses. I just wish their financial aid was more generous to those students than it is. CAVANAUGH: Are there any of the college rankings that you think are helpful? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Well, Forbes' rankings do a better job. What U.S. news is world report doesn't do, they don't measure learning outcomes, they don't look at, wow, are these kids getting a job when they get out? Are the professors good? Are they teaching these students something? So at least Forbes trying to get at that by looking at professor rankings in, they also look at pay scale figures, what kind of average salaries are students getting when they leave. CAVANAUGH: So are they getting monetary value for the money they put in in their education. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Right. And the pay scale is flawed too because it's self-reported. So the kids who are new college grads sitting on their parents' couching listening to this, they're not going to be reporting that they're unemployed. So you have to take all of this with a grain of salt. But I think that ranking is probably a little more realistic. And you can find those rankings, the nonprofit that developed these are at the university of Ohio, and if you Google Forbes rankings, you should be able to find it. The center for college affordability and productivity, click on the ranking hyperlink, and then they lump colleges and universities together. And if you go to 2011 or earlier, you can see the Forbes rankings sliced and diced different ways. You can see all the schools ranked in the western region or the midwest or the east or the south. What I say about these college rankings, I don't think it's just enough to say, well, they're not very good. They can be valuable in this way. If you just use them as a tool to look at schools, and to look beyond the schools that you know about, you know, the schools in your own state, or the schools that make the top, you know, 10 or 25 every year same old, same old schools, use it as a tip sheet. There's fabulous schools in this country that most students don't know anything about. And that's how I would use the rankings. CAVANAUGH: You said earlier that there are -- that these rankings can do some damage, what kind of damage can they do? O'SHAUGHNESSY: Well, I think a big thing is the prices are going up. If you are rewarded for pouring a lot of money into your school, whether it has anything to do with actual academic learning, that can be hurtful. Another big thing that I think hurts schools or kids is that the way the rankings are set up by U.S. news, it will reward students that attract student who is have higher test scores, higher GPAs, whose parents have gone to college already. These schools are giving out merit scholarships to students who don't even need the money. That whole phenom of giving students merit awards because they're affluent and can help with the rankings, that's destructive because there's less money for lower income students who could really use the help. CAVANAUGH: So your takeaway on this is use the information that you get from some of these rankings just to explore different schools. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Exactly. CAVANAUGH: Schools you haven't heard of before. O'SHAUGHNESSY: Exactly. Many of them are I think -- provide a better education than the ones that are always hogging the top of the rankings just because they happen to be the elite, rich schools.

UC Berkeley 50 21
UCLA 45 24
UCSD 117 38
UCSB 139 41
UC Irvine 140 44
SDSU 355 165
Rankings of California colleges by Forbes and U.S. News.

When U.S. News ranked UC San Diego the 38th best national university and eighth best public university and ranked San Diego State 165th best university overall, many take it for granted that there is an objective, perhaps even scientific, methodology to such rankings.

The U.S. News rankings, however, differ markedly from some others, notably Washington Monthly, which ranks UC San Diego number one, and Forbes, which ranks the university 117th.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of "The College Solution," told KPBS the differences lie in the criteria and the methods.

The biggest factor in the U.S. News rankings is an institution's reputation. Each school surveys all the others in their category. In the national category, there are 268 universities. Consequently, an institution is asked to judge hundreds of schools they know nothing about, so these rankings often measure how elite, wealthy and prestigious an institution is.


"It's not a scientific methodology," O'Shaughnessy said. "The major factor is what all the schools think of each other."

"So of course it's absurd," she added. "What does somebody at San Diego State know about what's going on at University of Connecticut or University of Missouri? It's a flawed way of evaluating schools."

She said when people making rankings are unsure of how to rank other schools, they look at U.S. News to see how those schools have been ranked in the past.

Forbes attempts to categorize schools based on educational experience, return-on-investment and amount of debt after graduation.

O'Shaughnessy said Forbes rankers look at websites like to see what students say about their professors. She said they also look at whether students get jobs when they leave the school and figures.

"That's not ideal either because it's self reported, but it's better than not looking at student outcomes at all," she said.

Rankings often are of little help to students and their parents, she said, because relying on them may mean that students never consider dozens of good schools not high on a list. And schools high up in the rankings often have extremely low acceptance rates.

Corrected: March 27, 2023 at 3:35 AM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.