A new report by a consulting firm in the US Art & Science Group highlights a significant gap between the emphasis placed on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings by college leaders and the actual relevance of these rankings to prospective students.
According to the report, while 58 percent of high school graduates from the class of 2023 acknowledged considering rankings in some capacity during their college search, only 5 percent believed they were well-informed enough about the U.S.
News ranking of their preferred school to identify it, and an even smaller 3 percent could correctly identify it.
The report’s findings suggest that the influence of U.S. News rankings may not be as dominant as previously assumed.
Few colleges follow Yale’s lead in rankings
Despite some anticipation that prestigious schools might follow the example set by Yale Law School, which opted out of the rankings in 2022, very few undergraduate institutions have followed suit. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona even urged colleges to reconsider their reliance on rankings, referring to it as the “false altar” in March.
However, the recent survey conducted by Art & Science Group indicates that while rankings do play a role in students’ college selection decisions, it is a supporting one rather than the main driver.
The report recommends that college leaders reevaluate the significance they attach to ranking improvements, especially if such efforts are solely aimed at attracting prospective students.
The survey, which collected data from May to July 2023 and involved over 800 recent high school graduates planning to attend a four-year college full-time, revealed that only a quarter of the students considered any particular ranking source.
Among those who did, U.S. News “Best Colleges” remained the most popular online rankings platform, but its influence has declined since 2016. The report also noted a reduced gap between U.S. News and the second most influential ranking source, Niche Best Colleges in America.
Moreover, regardless of their demographic characteristics, students generally ranked the importance of rankings lower than other factors such as academic quality, affordability, and safety when selecting a college.
This trend was consistent across students with different standardized test scores, where even high-scoring students rated rankings as tertiary in importance.
While the findings do not discount the relevance of rankings entirely, they suggest that prospective students tend to view rankings more abstractly and as part of a broader evaluation of a college’s overall reputation and stature.
Rankings serve as a tool for students to gain a general sense of an institution’s quality rather than as a deciding factor in their college choice.