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Education September 12, 2017: Princeton and Williams again top of US News’ 2018 Best Colleges amid accusations of elitism




By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

U.S. News & World Report again has Princeton University and Williams College topping their list of Best Colleges for 2018. (Wikipedia Commons)

While international university rankings are reporting upheaval, there is one ranking that remains rock solid in its findings, U.S. News & World Report again has Princeton University and Williams College topping their list of Best Colleges. U.S. News, the standard-bearers in the national university and college rankings game released on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, their first of two major college and university rankings for the season, their Best Colleges rankings for 2018 online. Princeton, Williams, and Berkley all saw repeat visits to the top of the rankings. Princeton is №1 of all Best National Universities for the seventh year, while Williams remains atop the Best National Liberal Arts Colleges for the past 15 years. This year’s ranking was rather indecisive with multiple schools vying for a single spot.

Public universities some changes in this year’s ranking. Berkley is no longer the only university in the University of California system helming the Top Public Schools among National Universities; UC Los Angeles, both tying for first place, joins it. Berkley still №1 as it has been for the last 20 years. There is, however, a new king in first place in the Top Public Schools among National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking. The United States Military Academy at West Point takes over from former honor taker the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis as the best public liberal arts college. As much as US News is celebrated for its king maker status it is becoming increasingly under fire for claims that their Best Colleges ranking fuels elitism and shuts out low-income students seeking degrees because they would hinder schools’ quest to rise in the rankings.

The Ivy League and elite universities dominate the Best National Universities. Princeton remains on top, followed by Harvard again in second, while the University of Chicago and Yale continue to tie for third place. Three elite schools now tie for fifth place, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford. MIT leaped two spots to end up in the top five. The University of Pennsylvania retains the eighth spot, but no longer shares it with Duke University. Duke drops one to fall into ninth place. Rounding out the top ten is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), who moves back up two to retake the tenth place after leaving the top 10 briefly last year. John Hopkins University leaves the top 10, to tie for 11th place. The top thirty has a new school with the New York University joining the esteemed ranks rising six to 30. NYU raised their profile by having additional campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and marketing themselves as a “new type of global, private research university.”

There are also plenty of colleges tied in the Best National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking, listing the best primary undergraduate schools specializing in the arts and sciences. The top two remain unchanged, with Williams College on top and Amherst in second. Now the third place is a three-way tie with Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Wellesley vying for the one spot. Bowdoin is the greatest gainer in the bunch was Bowdoin moving up from sixth, while Swarthmore moving up one from tied for fourth. Middlebury College loses two positions moving down from tied for fourth to tie with sixth with Pomona College, which moves up one from seventh. Carleton College moves down one to tie for eighth with Claremont McKenna, who moves up from ninth. Two colleges now vie for tenth, Davidson College moves down one, and Washington and Lee University moves up one into the top 10.

In the lists of best public schools, University of California-Berkeley is longer the lone king atop of the Top Public Schools among National Universitiesranking. In its 20th year, Berkley now co-reigns with fellow University of California school, UC Los Angeles, both schools tie for 21st place in the Best National Universities list. UCLA standing rose because this past year it became the first university in the country to receive 100,000 applications for the 2021 freshman class. The University of Virginia maintains its third spot. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor also stays in its spot at fourth, with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill still rounding out the top five.

The ranking’s biggest shake up is the Top Public Schools among National Liberal Arts Colleges list, with the United States Military Academy grabbing up the top spot from the former king the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. West Point ties for 12th on the national ranking. The United States Naval Academy now slips to second and is the 21st school on the national list. This is the first time since 2009–10 that West Point led Annapolis. The United States Air Force Academy remains in third. Another military college the Virginia Military Institute takes the fourth place alone this year. St. Mary’s College of Maryland rounds out the top five.

US News publishes their “Best Colleges” ranking lists in different categories including National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Top Public Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional CollegesA-plus Schools for B StudentsBest Value Schools for universities and liberal arts colleges, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In total, more than 1,800 colleges and universities were profiled.

Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News, commented on the value of the rankings to help with college choice decision making. Kelly explained, “Before taking out student loans or writing a tuition check, families should research graduation and retention rates. These are important indicators of how well a school supports its students both academically and financially.” Continuing Kelly remarked, “Colleges that saddle students with debt but do little to support them through graduation are contributing to a vicious cycle — without that valuable degree, students will have a difficult time landing well-paying jobs and repaying their loans, which puts them in a precarious financial situation early on in their careers.”

Although public universities and liberal arts colleges are given separate lists, the same is not done with private universities and liberal arts colleges. The US News’ ranking categories are based on Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. US News Best Colleges’ methodology involves looking at over 1,800 universities and colleges to create their four rankings; the results are determined by “15 measures of academic quality,” taken from the Common Data Set. The Best Colleges lists rely heavily on “student outcomes” predominantly “graduation and retention rates” which represent 30 percent of the deciding factor in the ranking. The main criterion includes “graduation and retention rates, undergraduate academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources, financial resources, alumni giving and graduation rate performance.”

This year US News tweaked their methodology adding new elements to give seniors and their parents more information for the college decision making. One factors into the ranking the other does not. For the National Universities under graduation rates US News now looks at the “proportion of degrees awarded in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.”

US News is also dipping into the return on investment (ROI) trend in college rankings and will now provide “salary data for alumni of individual schools, supplied by the online analyst PayScale.” The salary data, however, is still not part of the ranking methodology. Robert Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News remarked on the new ROI addition, saying. “Using salary as a heavily weighted rankings factor ignores academic quality, which we believe is more important for prospective students and their parents when considering which school to attend.” Morse, however, pointed out, “Not everyone is interested in a high-salaried career. Secondly, the salary data — while important — is not comprehensive enough to do an analytic school-by-school comparison.”

The US News rankings guidebook and companion website include over 50 ranking lists. The methodology US News uses benefits private universities, and the rubrics are “based on school reputation surveys; student selectivity; faculty resources; alumni giving; graduation and retention rates; and total spending per student on education.” In contrast public universities “rely heavily on state funding, often have tighter budgets, far larger enrollment and a broader mandate for accessibility than private institutions.”

US News’ Best Colleges list has become more controversial in recent years because of its focus on the cliché Ivy League and elite universities. As the Washington Post pointed out, calling the ranking “an annual sorting exercise that draws scrutiny from students, parents, and alumni but scorn from critics who say it’s a pointless game of prestige.” A day before the 2018 edition’s release Politico went further in their investigative article “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus.” The article’s subtitle is even more politically loaded, saying, “Once ladders of social mobility, universities increasingly reinforce existing wealth, fueling a backlash that helped elect Donald Trump.”

The article argues that the US News rubrics have become ingrained in universities strategic plans that they “create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.” The top one percent are catering to the top one percent rather than giving an opportunity to the bottom 60 percent. Politico argues that admission decisions and financial priorities are determined by the schools’ ranking aspirations and that is threatening students from middle and low earning families.

Among the criteria most being altered include, “student performance, lower acceptance rates, performing well on surveys, and alumni giving. Despite all the claims of diversity in admissions, the Ivy League is nearly three-quarters filled with the “top quartile of income earners” and only less than five percent from the bottom quartile, with those in the lowest never even going on to complete their bachelor’s degrees if they are started. Private and public schools are continuing the trend just to up their prestige on rankings, primarily US News Best Colleges.

The stereotypical poor and white are the most affected, and as Politico noted fueled the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump rise to the presidency. Walter Benn Michaels, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago told Politico “Elite colleges are part of the apparatus that produces Trumpism and produces working class, white resentment.” While Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation claimed, “It fits perfectly into Trump’s narrative … Basically, if you’re a low-income or working-class white student who works hard and you find out that what matters in admissions is who your daddy is, or what your race is, you’re completely left out.”

Politico’s research concluded US News is the worst of the rankings to continue the descent into economic equality in higher education. US News is one of the oldest and the most prestigious national ranking started in 1983, which the magazine called “the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education.” US News’ methodology factors in university spending on faculty salary and on students, which rises up tuition to the astronomical rates seniors are now facing as they embark on college. Universities are attempting to reap the most rewards by accepting students they know would succeed, the wealthy ones. F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University was the harshest in his opinion, saying, “I think U.S. News has done more damage to the higher education marketplace than any single enterprise that’s out there…. I call it ‘the greatest inefficiency ranking in America.’”

The Politico article accuses US News of stifling the increase in college degrees earned and preventing low-income students from acquiring them. Mitchell Stevens, a Stanford University sociologist called the U.S. News “the machinery that organizes and governs this competition.” Stevens called the ranking a peculiar form of governance” in higher education “because schools essentially use them to make sense of who they are relative to each other. And families use them basically as a guide to the higher education marketplace.” The rankings rubrics have become benchmarks for universities and state governments who yearn for a top ranking university in their midst at the public school level.

US News fiercely denies the negative effects their king maker status has on higher education. Robert Morse on the defensive told Politico, “We’re not setting the admissions standards at any schools. Our main mission for our rankings is to provide information for prospective students and their parents, and we’re measuring academic quality. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we believe we’ve been driving transparency in higher education data. Our methodology and the data we’ve chosen for the best colleges rankings is to measure which schools are the top in academic excellence.”

US News also denies their methodology affects universities policies, but administrators contradict that claim. Student selectivity has lead universities to accept students with higher scores on the SAT and ACT exams, where students from wealthier families do better because of access to preparation courses, materials, and tutors. The acceptance rate game also plays against low-income students, as acceptance rates have dropped; schools are becoming more selective as more students apply. Early admission and decisions programs are accepting more of the share of students but less low-income students apply for early decision.

A university financial and faculty resources matter a lot to US News, but also lock out low-income students as universities want to free up funding so they stay away from students that need financial and funding. Instead, to increase their rank, universities are spending more to hire faculty and ensure class sizes fall below the ideal 20 students per professor. Universities and colleges are also paying their faculty more. To acquire the necessary funding schools are increasing tuition and skirting financial needy students. Public universities are feeling the crunch the most and they are the ones raising tuition.

The all-important undergraduate academic reputation has college presidents, high school guidance counselors, college advisors rate universities, and colleges. A majority of high schools especially in low-income areas do not even have a counselor for their school, giving wealthy schools another advantage. Universities are also peddling to students that they know will keep up the alumni-giving rate, this is especially rampant among elite schools. The Ivy League particularly Harvard are preferring legacy admissions, with 40 percent of Harvard’s incoming class having a parent who graduated from the school. To ensure the money flows in low-income students are shut out.

Only two of US News’s metrics graduation and retention rates and graduation rate performance benefit low-income students, however, to ensure rates remain high schools turn to wealthier students who will graduate. Graduation rate performance is the most beneficial to low-income students because it “recognizes schools that are working to help the most disadvantaged students.” Morse argues the ranking’s rubrics are not creating biases but “creating a better academic environment” and “improvements across the board.”

Universities that play the game are rewarded and those who choose instead to help low-income students are punished in the rankings. President Barack Obama decried the rankings culture and attempted to counter US News’ influence by creating a rival ranking, The College Scorecard, which the Trump Administration is continuing. The ranking has its problems and needs to bolter its credibility, now the scorecard does not even threaten US News in the least. US News still dominates and does not care about the counter effects. In the end, despite the controversies that dog US News’ ranking and other rankings for fueling elitism or other reasons, as long as the rankings continue and equate prestige universities and colleges will continue playing the game perpetuating the problems.

Best National Universities

1 Princeton University (NJ) (1)
2 Harvard University (MA) (2)
3 University of Chicago (IL) (4)
3 Yale University (CT) (3)
5 Columbia University (NY) (5)
5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (7)
5 Stanford University (CA) (5)
8 University of Pennsylvania (8)
9 Duke University (8)
10 California Institute of Technology (Caltech) (11)

Best National Liberal Arts Colleges

1 Williams College (MA) (1)
2 Amherst College (MA) (2)
3 Bowdoin College (ME) (6)
4 Swarthmore College (PA) (4)
3 Wellesley College (MA) (3)
6 Middlebury College (4)
6 Pomona College (7)
8 Carleton College (7)
8 Claremont McKenna College (9)
10 Davidson College (9)
10 Washington and Lee University (11)

Top Public Schools

National Universities

1 University of California-Berkeley (1)
1 University of California-Los Angeles (2)
3 University of Virginia (3)
4 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (4)
5 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (4)

Liberal Arts Colleges

1 United States Military Academy (NY) (2)
2 United States Naval Academy (MD) (1)
3 United States Air Force Academy (CO) (3)
4 Virginia Military Institute (4)
5 St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.