College Rankings Held Hostage: The Undeserved Monopoly of US News Rankings

Criticisms that invalidate the U.S. News college and university rankings have existed for decades. This annotated timeline of online resources critiquing the U.S. News rankings recounts the history of efforts to curb and unseat these rankings. We present this timeline because to defeat a thing it helps to understand its history.

College Rankings Held Hostage: The Undeserved Monopoly of US News Rankings

U.S. News & World Report monopolizes college and university rankings. No other ranking company for higher education comes even close to its dominance. Its market share is ten to twenty times that of its closest competitors and parallels Google’s market share in the realm of search.

The U.S. News monopoly over college and university rankings is undeserved. Fatal flaws in the U.S. News rankings have been understood and written about for decades. Rather than formulate yet another case against the U.S. News rankings, AcademicInfluence.com is offering here an annotated timeline of popular articles, journal articles, podcasts, etc. to make that case.

As this timeline shows, the case against the U.S. News rankings is overwhelming. Schools invoke and advertise the U.S. News rankings not because they believe in them but because they are held hostage by them. To rise in the U.S. News rankings means more applicants, more research dollars, more credit with the banks. To fall in the U.S. News rankings means the opposite. Schools feel trapped. The few that opt out (notably Reed College) get penalized.

The U.S. News rankings are flawed. But are they better than nothing? True, they’ve led to a standardization of how certain college data are presented. Moreover, they are useful to high school students whose college counselors are absent or unavailable — if only to get some broad sense of which schools are good and which are better.

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But on balance, the U.S. News rankings make higher education worse. Schools are motivated to “game” the U.S. News rankings, introducing superficial and even counterproductive changes that raise their ranking but do nothing to provide a better education for students or a more productive environment for faculty. Worse yet, some schools will simply lie to U.S. News to increase their ranking.

Better ways exist to do college and university rankings. At AcademicInfluence.com, we are attempting to provide a new paradigm for higher-ed rankings. We have made some tangible progress. Several academics who have been critical of the U.S. News rankings have come on board with us (see, for instance, our interviews with Jeffrey Stake, Jeff Selingo, and Santa J. Ono ).

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn argued that the best way to overcome an existing paradigm is to replace it. At AcademicInfluence.com, we are earnestly striving to create a better paradigm for college and university rankings. Yet to appreciate the need for a better new paradigm, it helps to see why the existing paradigm is bankrupt. The annotated timeline that follows makes clear the unsustainability of the U.S. News ranking paradigm.

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This timeline is an ongoing project that will be augmented periodically. Even though the focus is negative, highlighting faults in the U.S. News rankings, it would be inaccurate to say that this timeline cherry picks only the worst about U.S. News. The fact is that no one defends the U.S. News rankings except for schools that cite them to their advantage, and of course U.S. News itself.

Punch into a Google search “why U.S. News rankings are good,” hoping to find some positive press about the U.S. News rankings, and the only positive you’ll see is the self-testimony of U.S. News. Everything else, in SERP after SERP, is negative. The first two items you’ll see on the first SERP (at the time of this writing) are PrepScholar’s 2021 piece “Why You Shouldn’t Trust U.S. News College Rankings” and Vox’s 2014 piece “The U.S. News rankings are terrible for students. Why don’t colleges stop them?”

It’s disconcerting that a softball query like this, intended to make U.S. News rankings look good, still elicits overwhelmingly negative web coverage. The reason is clear: these rankings really are deeply flawed, and indeed unsalvageable. At the end of this timeline, we consider what might be done to clip U.S. News’s wings. Obviously, what’s been tried to date hasn’t worked.

The Overwhelming Case Against the U.S. News College and University Rankings

2022

  • Former USC Education-School Dean Pushed Flawed Rankings Data, Law-Firm Report Finds. This WSJ article by Melissa Korn recounts how a former dean of the USC school of education, as far back as 2013, fudged data that it reported to U.S. News in order to rise in its rankings. This is the conclusion of an independent legal investigation that was released at the end of April 2022 by the university. U.S. News had ranked the USC school of education at No. 11 when the school withdrew from the U.S. News rankings in March 2022.
  • Are Rankings Being Rigged (Again)? Scott Jaschik, who has been writing against the U.S. News rankings for years, returns to this topic here, focusing on “two lawsuits charg[ing] that the Rutgers Business School inflated its rank by hiring its own students through a placement company.” This is the persistent pattern: the U.S. News rankings incentivize dishonest and perverse behavior on the part of schools, which then leads to their embarrassment and censure. Yet U.S. News consistently sidesteps all responsibility. This needs to change.
  • Do the ‘U.S. News’ Rankings Rely on Dubious Data? Researchers who submit to the publication say survey answers are subject to errors, ambiguity, and pressure to look good. This piece, by Francie Diep, which appeared the same day in the Chronicle of Higher Education as the article by Colin Diver cited below, forms a companion piece to Diver’s. Its title and subtitle are likewise self-explanatory. The subtitle might have added that the survey answers are also subject to fudging, misrepresentation, lying, and outright fraud.
  • The Rankings Farce: ‘U.S. News’ and its ilk embrace faux-precise formulas riven with statistical misconceptions. The title and subtitle of this piece by Colin Diver, former president of Reed College (from 2002-2012), is self-explanatory. It appeared April 6, 2022 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Diver has publicly criticized the U.S. News rankings for now almost two decades. In this piece, Diver breaks the statistical problems with the U.S. News rankings into six sub-problems, the last of which is “One Size Doesn’t Fit All; the ‘Best College’ Illusion.” He also plugs Reed’s continued resistance to the U.S. News rankings.
  • Temple’s former business school dean was sentenced to 14 months in rankings scandal fraud. Article by Jeremy Roebuck and Susan Snyder in the March 11, 2022 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer announcing the sentencing of Moshe Porat, who as dean of Temple University’s Fox School of Business had lied to U.S. News, thereby committing fraud, to make his program rise to the top of the U.S. News rankings.
  • An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking. This is perhaps the most important article on the U.S. News rankings in a decade. Written by Columbia University mathematician Michael Thaddeus, it offers a precise and detailed critique of the U.S. News rankings. Though pointing out the shortcomings of the U.S. News rankings as they apply to Columbia, this critique holds for the U.S. News rankings in general and applies to all American colleges and universities. Thaddeus was inspired to write this article in attempting to understand Columbia’s meteoric rise in the U.S. News rankings—in 2022 Columbia claimed the number 2 spot, just behind Princeton. Reconstructing aspects of the ranking from data independently available, Thaddeus found that the high ranking by U.S. News of Columbia came, at least in part, from fudged data supplied by Columbia. This article is long but worth reading in full. Its conclusion is memorable and includes this insightful paragraph: “Even on its own terms, the ranking is a failure because the supposed facts on which it is based cannot be trusted. Eighty percent of the U.S. News ranking of a university is based on information reported by the university itself. This information is detailed and subtle, and the vetting conducted by U.S. News is cursory enough to allow many inaccuracies to slip through. Institutions are under intense pressure to present themselves in the most favorable light. This creates a profound conflict of interest, which it would be naive to overlook.” A summary of this article, along with some further comment by Thaddeus as well as by Columbia University, appeared subsequently in the NY Daily News. On March 17, 2022, the New York Times picked up on this story: ”U.S. News Ranked Columbia No. 2, but a Math Professor Has His Doubts... A professor identified several data discrepancies that Columbia University provided to U.S. News & World Report, renewing the debate over the value and accuracy of college rankings.”
  • Are Colleges Controlled by Rankings? Interview with Jeffrey Stake. Interview conducted by Jed Macosko on AcademicInfluence.com’s YouTube channel with Jeffrey Stake, Robert A. Lucas Chair and Professor of Law at Indiana University. Prof. Stake shows how U.S. News rankings of law schools can guide students to law schools that are in fact not a good fit for them and prove counterproductive in their subsequent law careers. There’s also a follow-up interview with Prof. Stake by Karina Macosko titled The “Ranking Game” of Universities.
  • Distortions of Business School Rankings: Interview with Anjani Jain. Interview conducted by Jed Macosko on AcademicInfluence.com’s YouTube channel with Anjani Jain, Deputy Dean for Academic Programs and Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale University. Prof. Jain argues that the main rankings of business schools, such as U.S. News and Bloomberg, constitute gross oversimplifications.

2021

  • Lord of the Rankings. Malcolm Gladwell in this podcast walks listeners through the sheer irrationality of U.S. News Rankings.
  • Project Dillard. Malcolm Gladwell considers Dillard University in New Orleans as exemplifying schools against which U.S. News is fundamentally biased and which can as a consequence never rise substantially in their rankings, however much they improve by any objective measure. See also this blog post about U.S. News rankings by Dillard president Walter Kimbrough. Kimbrough has been arguing that U.S. News rankings are inherently biased against black colleges at least since 2007.
  • Former Temple U. Dean Found Guilty of Faking Data for National Rankings. New York Times article by Alyssa Lukpat describing how Temple University business dean Moshe Porat faked data to convince U.S. News to rank his Fox School of Business at number 1 among online business schools. Convicted in the fall of 2021, Porat is looking at up to 25 years in prison. For more on the story, see Pepperdine University professor Paul Caron’s blog post.
  • Why You Shouldn’t Trust U.S. News College Rankings. Samantha Lindsay’s article for PrepScholar deconstructing the U.S. News rankings.
  • The Ominous Cracks in the U.S. News College Ranking System. In this piece by Chris Lydgate for Reed Magazine, she focuses on Malcolm Gladwell expose of “the circular logic and the culture of privilege embedded” in U.S. News’s ranking algorithm.
  • Ranking the College Ranking Systems. AcademicInfluence.com’s interview with Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia. He highlights the following flaw in the U.S. News rankings: “Many rankings will look at what we call input data as opposed to output data. [I]f you can sift through U.S. News Best Colleges, they’re ranked as national or regional institutions of liberal arts colleges. A lot of the data that’s used to rank institutions is how many people apply and how many people are rejected, and what are their credentials. That has to do with the students before they even step foot on campus, and that’s flawed.”
  • U.S. News Law School Rankings Are Losing Ground, Analyst Says. Jed Macosko is interviewed at MindMatters.ai about the unhealthy impact of U.S. News law school rankings, especially in skewing perceptions of schools among prospective law school students.
  • The Unreasonable Sway of College and University Rankings: An Interview with Jeffrey Stake and Jed Macosko. This interview, conducted by Bruce Gordon with Jeffrey Stake and Jed Macosko for the money and business website Expensivity.com, makes as good a case as is out there for how theU.S. News ranking short-circuit the stewardship of resources that schools should strive to preserve and use wisely. As Jed Macosko puts it: “Students are best served when the schools they attend do their absolute best to lower costs and add value... It’s like anything else in a free market economy. The consumers hope that they will get the best value for the lowest cost. Usually, free market forces will dictate that this kind of thing happens, more or less. But when the ‘value’ of one’s education is largely determined by where it ranks on a list, and when that list is self-reinforcing with the ‘echo’ that Jeff just described, then it short-circuits all the helpful free market forces which would normally push schools to provide a greater value for a smaller price.”

2020

  • University rankings need a rethink. Important article in the premier science journal Nature by Elizabeth Gadd. Key quote: “The rankings with the largest audiences [such as the U.S. News & World Report global ranking] were found most wanting, particularly in terms of ‘measuring what matters’ and ‘rigour’. None of these ‘flagship’ rankings considered open access, equality, diversity, sustainability or other society-focused agendas. None allows users to weigh indicators to reflect a university’s mission. Yet all claim to identify the world’s best universities.”
  • What’s wrong with using graduation rates to rank colleges? This piece, by the AcademicInfluence.com staff, shows how making higher graduation rates a way of moving up in rankings, as U.S. News does, unfairly advantages elite schools since their students “already have an economic, educational, and circumstantial edge over the average student in reaching graduation before ever setting foot on campus. Schools that cater to elite students naturally tilt the scales in their own favor by selecting students who profile as far likelier to graduate in six years or less.”

2019

  • Oklahoma Gave False Data for Years to ‘U.S. News,’ Loses Ranking. Reporting for Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jashik notes how the University of Oklahoma for years helped boost its rankings with U.S. News by reporting false information, for instance by claiming that its alumni giving was 50 percent more than it actually was (U.S. News rewards alumni giving in its rankings).
  • Students Find Glaring Discrepancy in U.S. News Rankings. Chris Lydgate, writing for Reed Magazine, notes how Reed students, by statistically analyzing the correlation between U.S. News rankings and the way U.S. News was saying it used datat to calculate those rankings, found a serious discrepancy that penalized Reed. As the article notes, “If USN faithfully followed its own formula in the 2019 rankings, Reed would be ranked at #38, rather than its assigned rank of #90. In other words, USN pushed the college down a whopping 52 rungs on the ladder because Reed wouldn’t fill out their form.”

2018

  • U.S. News changed the way it ranks colleges. It’s still ridiculous. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss weighs in on the ongoing ludicrousness of the U.S. News rankings.
  • Reed and the Rankings Game. Reed Colleges summary of why the school refuse to play the rankings game with U.S. News and how that refusal has lowered it in the U.S. News rankings.
  • The Temple Rankings Scandal: From Bad to Worse. Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Ed, describes the Temple University business school scandal involving the sending of false data to U.S. News while the scandal was still in its early stage. In 2021 this scandal led to the conviction of Moshe Porat, dean of the Temple business school, for submitting false data to U.S. News (see 2021 in this timeline).
  • 8 More Colleges Submitted Incorrect Data for Rankings. Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Ed, lists eight colleges for submitting false data to U.S. News: Austin Peay, Dakota Wesleyan, Drury, Hampton, Oklahoma City U, Randolph College, Saint Louis U, and St. Martin’s.
  • What College Rankings Really Measure: It’s Not Quality. This article by Jonathan Wai in Salon describes research by educational psychologists Matthew Brown and Christopher Chabris indicating that close to 90 percent of the the U.S. News ranking metric can be recovered by looking simply at standardized test scores, and that these scores by themselves don’t tell you much about students or schools that use test scores as a basis of their admissions.

2017

  • Adam Ruins Everything — Why College Rankings Are A Crock. Parody by Adam Conover about why the U.S. News rankings are bogus. This brief two-minute video is spot on and wonderfully clarifies for the newbie to college rankings why the U.S. News rankings are not just bogus but hopeless.
  • How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus. Benjamin Wermund writing for Politico. The subtitle reads: “Once ladders of social mobility, universities increasingly reinforce existing wealth, fueling a backlash that helped elect Donald Trump.” Especially noteworthy is this contrast in the article between Southern Methodist University and Georgia State University: “Southern Methodist University in Dallas conducted a billion-dollar fundraising drive devoted to many of the areas ranked by U.S. News, including spending more on faculty and recruiting students with higher SAT scores — and jumped in the rankings. Meanwhile, Georgia State University, which has become a national model for graduating more low- and moderate-income students, dropped 30 spots.” Further evidence that the U.S. News rankings’ impact on American higher education are not neutral.

2016

  • The Ranking Game. A web initiative by Indiana University law professor Jeffrey Stake, begun in 2002 and ended in 2016 when data needed to run the Ranking Game became less available and after Prof. Stake had made his point. What was his point? That it was possible to recreate and embellish the U.S. News law schools rankings by simply fine-tuning a few dials/variables, and that as a consequence there was no way that these rankings could honest reflect the actual merits of law schools. The Ranking Game appeared on the University of Indiana server.

2015

  • Who Responds to U.S. News & World Report’s Law School Rankings? Article in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies by Jeffrey Stake and Michael Alexeev, focusing on the degree to which the popularity of the U.S. News rankings adversely influences “the behavior of law teachers, lawyers and judges, law school applicants, employers, or law school administrators” via what the authors call an “echo effect,” in which the rankings, because they are shouted from the roof tops, become so widely known and accepted that they become self-fulfilling prophecies for those who care about the rankings. For readers without an academic affiliation, this article may be found at SciHub.

2014

2013

  • Vying for a Spot on the World’s A List. New York Times piece by D. D. Guttenplan showing how U.S. News and other similar reputation-based university rankings have such far reaching economic implications as to affect the policy of nations around the world.
  • Which Schools Aren’t Lying Their Way to a Higher U.S. News Rankings? David Wagner, writing for The Atlantic, records this year’s rogues gallery of U.S. News fakers: Tulane University, Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, and George Washington University.
  • The Admission Arms Race: Six Ways Colleges Game Their Numbers This article by Marian Wang in Propublica describes “the ways in which schools can pump up their stats” to rise up in college rankings. The article argues that students applying to schools should be aware of these ways that schools game the U.S. News and other rankings because such ploys can affect the students’ admission. For instance, according to the article, schools will “reject good students” that the schools “think are just using them as a backup.”
  • How ‘U.S. News’ Ranks Colleges. Parody by the Onion — that’s not far from the truth — about how U.S. News ranks schools.
  • Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings. John Tierney’s succinct summary in The Atlantic about why the U.S. News rankings fail. But precisely because the U.S. News rankings are holding college rankings, and therewith the very colleges and universities themselves, hostage, they can’t be ignored.
  • Yet Another Rankings Fabrication: Tulane sent U.S. News incorrect information about the university’s business school. Article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. The title/subtitle are self-explanatory. Note that in 2021 falsifying business school data to U.S. News ended in a conviction of the Temple University business school dean (see 2021 on this timeline).
  • Can You Verify That? Scott Jaschik, reporting for Inside Higher Ed, describes the then new resolve by U.S. News to improve its fact checking on data submitted to it by schools. How’s that worked out? Data falsified by schools and submitted to U.S. News to induce higher rankings continues to this day.
  • A Quantitative Study of Persistence Factors for First-Year Students at Urban and Residential Universities. This dissertation by Abigail Parsons Shiban focuses on the challenges that students in urban setting face to continue their college education past the first year. Such a retention metric plays a significant role in the U.S. News rankings and thus counts against urban schools. As Shiban explains, the “use of traditional measures of academic success (average SAT scores of entering students, endowment size, and graduation rates, for example) leads to rankings that place traditional universities at the top and access-focused urban institutions at the bottom.”

2012

  • U.S. News, the root of all evil. This blog post by Stephen Budiansky, who used to be at U.S. News as a reporter, is perhaps our favorite article of all on the U.S. News rankings, especially for its combination of concision and spleen. In describing the tactics schools invent to game the U.S. News rankings, Budiansky recounts how the Case Law School “hired as adjunct professors local alumni who already had lucrative careers (thereby increasing the faculty-student ratio, a key U.S. News statistic used in determining ranking), paid them exorbitant salaries they did not need (thereby increasing average faculty salary, another U.S. News data point), then made it understood that since they did not really need all that money they were expected to donate it all back to the school (thereby increasing the alumni giving rate, another U.S. News data point): three birds with one stone!”
  • Debt, Jobs, Diversity and Who Gets In: A Survey of Admissions Directors. Article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. As he notes in the article: “Admissions officials have long had a love-hate relationship with the rankings, pushing for higher placement and criticizing U.S. News & World Report and other rankings as oversimplifying what should be a very nuanced process. [A] survey found that only 14 percent of admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that rankings help students find a college with a good fit. More than half disagreed or strongly disagreed.”
  • Gaming College Rankings. New York Times article by Richard Pérez-Peña and Daniel E. Slotnik provides a recent laundry list of schools lying and misrepresenting their data to rise the U.S. News rankings. Offending schools mentioned include Iona, Baylor, Claremont McKenna, Villanova, and University of Illinois.
  • College Says It Exaggerated SAT Figures for Ratings. New York Times article by Richard Pérez-Peña and Daniel E. Slotnik focuses on Claremont McKenna in falsifying its SAT scores over a period of six years.
  • The College Rankings Racket. Joe Nocera, writing for the New York Times, describes some of the perverse incentives created by the U.S. News rankings: (1) Quoting Kevin Kerry: “If you figure out how to do the same service for less money, your U.S. News ranking will go down.” (2) The rankings exacerbate the status anxiety that afflicts so many high school students. (3) Cheating scandals at high schools are “driven in no small part by the imperative of its students to get into a prestigious college,” prestige being of course largely determined by U.S. News rankings.
  • The U.S. News Ranking Effect: The Ranking Made Us Do It. This piece consists of hard-hitting excerpts from Brian Tamanaha’s 2012 University of Chicago Press book titled Failing Law Schools. Consider the following extended quote: “When called to account for their conduct, legal educators point the finger at the U.S. News ranking system. Once a few law schools began to use questionable techniques to squeeze up their score in the factors that went into the ranking, others risked being punished with a lower rank if they did not follow suit. The rankings have law schools by the throat. No question. From 1990, when U.S. News began to issue a systematic annual ranking, its influence over law schools has grown enormously. Deceptive reporting practices are just a part of its pervasive impact. Multiple deans have resigned after a drop in rank. Schools have altered their admissions formula to maximize their ranking. The internal composition of the student body has changed in multiple ways at law schools as a result of the ranking. Schools have shifted scholarships away from financially needy students owing to the ranking. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on promotional material by law schools hoping to improve their ranking. Faculties have formed committees and plotted strategies to chart a rise in the rankings. The fact that reputation among academics is the most heavily weighted factor in the ranking—25 percent of the score—turbocharged the market for lateral hires, boosting professor pay at the high end. The Government Accounting Office issued a report to Congress concluding that competition among law schools over the ranking is a major contributor to the increase in tuition.”

2011

2010

  • Questionable Science Behind Academic Rankings. This article by D. D. Guttenplan in the New York Times laments that the main academic ranking organizations, notably U.S. News, produce rankings that are biased and lack objectivity. This problem, according to this article, is especially acute for global rankings of universities, where cross-country comparisons become even more difficult than for those simply confined to one country.
  • Dissecting the Rankings: The U.S. News and World Report. The website TopLawSchools here carefully analyzes the impact of the U.S. News rankings, arguing that even minute changes in the U.S. News ranking of law schools can drastically impact the students law schools attract, thus making it especially difficult for law schools to opt out of the U.S. News ranking system. We see this theme that the U.S. News rankings are especially invidious for law schools throughout this timeline. Compare also this article at NationalJurist.com in which Prof. Brian Leiter is quoted as commenting: “The problem is that U.S. News is done incompetently and has too much influence. It is a terrible charade at this point. But if students do not have other information, they will fall back on it.”
  • The Top American Research Universities. This white paper, produced by the Center for Measuring University Performance, argues that there is no compelling univocal way to rank universities in a linear order and that different criteria can lead to different ways of ranking schools. This white paper is especially critical of the U.S. News ranking, which it sees among other things as “reminiscent of the publicity blitzes that precede the ranking that produces Academy Awards... The effort to create what some have called celebrity universities is a consequence of the ranking popularity contests that are a part of some highly promoted league tables such as the U.S. News [ranking].”
  • The Social Construction of Rankings. This white paper by Milo Shield that focuses on the use of statistics in the formation of college and university rankings, with special emphasis on the U.S. News rankings. The author asks: “How meaningful are these rankings? How can one assess the objectivity in a ranking? This paper examines ten factors involved in the social construction of rankings. One of these, the choice of the context or competition, is very powerful yet is often ignored. The goal is to help the reader become more aware of the different kinds of choices involved in constructing a ranking.”

2009

  • College Rankings: History, Criticism, and Reform. This extensive white paper by Luke Myers and Jonathan Robe for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity lays out in detail the case that the U.S. News rankings have a negative impact on higher education and that a reform of college rankings is in order. This white paper has an extensive and helpful bibliography.
  • ‘Manipulating,’ Er, Influencing ‘U.S. News’. Douglas Lederman, writing for Inside Higher Ed, describes the aggressive approach of some colleges to rising the U.S. News rankings: aggressive approach to rising in the rankings. “People don’t have this as their official vision, but by God it’s their unofficial vision.”

2008

  • The Rankings Czar. This piece by Lynda Edwards for the American Bar Association Journal is remarkable in the way it illustrates the visceral hold that the U.S. News rankings have on academics. The article begins by describing law professor Nancy Rapoport handling with aplomb the deaths and mayhem of Hurricane Allison in Houston, but then a few years later gushing tears when she reported to students and faculty her school had fallen five spots in U.S. News annual law school rankings. The article raises the prospect of finding alternatives to U.S. News, but finds them all “meager.” Note the contrast with the optimism of supplanting the U.S. News rankings the previous year. U.S. News is a gorilla, and those in 2007 who thought they could take it down were treating it like a lamb.
  • Interlopers and Field Change: The Entry of U.S. News into the Field of Legal Education. This is a scholarly piece by Michael Sauder that appeared in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly. For non-academics without access to university libraries, the article is available here. The article is technical and abstract, but it makes the point that U.S. News has become an exogenous or external force that’s deeply influential on legal education. The question to be asked is why, as an interloper, it should have this much influence.

2007

This was a year of revolt by many colleges, with multiple college presidents weighing in against the U.S. News rankings — hence the many references cited at this point in the timeline. In subsequent years, however, not much changed.

  • Who Ranks the University Rankers? Article in Science by Martin Enserink questioning the validity the main university rankings and the U.S. News rankings in particular. The subtitle reads: “Everyone would like to score well in an academic beauty contest. But is it really possible to assess an institution’s worth?”
  • Rising Up Against Rankings. Indira Samarasekera, writing for Inside Higher Ed, gives the example of Canadian universities in resisting Maclean’s, a news magazine that was attempting to do rankings in the same vein as U.S. News. Canada’s example in resisting rankings is encouraging, but Canadian education is more homogeneous than US education, without the sway of private institutions as we find in the US. It’s therefore not clear how much we can learn and effectively apply from the Canadian example.
  • An Analysis of the U.S. News & World Report Rating of USF. Interesting white paper by University of San Francisco analyzing what it will take to rank well with U.S. News — an inside track into how schools accommodate themselves to the U.S. News rankings.
  • Colleges withdraw from rankings by U.S. News magazine. This piece by Alan Finder in the New York Times outlines the revolt against U.S. News rankings by an emerging consortium of liberal arts colleges. See in the same vein Dismissing School Rankings in the Boston Globe by Sarah Wald, dean of the University of North Carolina law school.
  • Why you won’t find St. John’s College ranked in U.S. News and World Report. This brief piece by Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College (Annapolis, Maryland) appeared originally in University Business, The Magazine of College and University Administrators. Here is how Nelson explains his opposition to the U.S. News rankings, and rankings more generally: “Rankings do a disservice to students and their parents as they search for the best college. The decision about where to spend those four years is a serious and difficult one; we think that students and their parents need to know more about a college than the numbers used to arrive at survey results can provide. What’s more, rankings are almost always about popularity, prestige, and perceived quality of education, but they say virtually nothing about what happens after a student enrolls—they say nothing about the educational experience itself.”
  • More Momentum Against ′U.S. News. Scott Jaschik, reporting for Inside Higher Ed, about the meetings with ”the Annapolis Group — an organization of liberal arts colleges — critics of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings” that were looking for “a significant increase in the number of institutions where presidents pledge not to participate in the ‘reputational’ portion of the rankings or to use scores in their own promotional materials.” This expectation has in subsequent years been at best marginally fulfilled. The Annapolis Group had a brief burst in 2007 of taking on U.S. News. Visit their website today, and you will find no mention of or challenge to the U.S. News rankings. See also Jaschik’s piece in Inside Higher Ed titled Battle Lines on U.S. News.
  • The Cost of Bucking College Rankings. Michele Tolela Myers, the then president of Sarah Lawrence College and writing for the Washington Post, explains the costs and penalties of not playing ball with U.S. News in their rankings. By going test blind rather than merely test optional on the SAT (which it did in 2003), Sarah Lawrence saw its ranking drop — U.S. News would penalize Sarah Lawrence for not submitting SAT scores by assigning them an average SAT score 200 points below that of their peer institutions. As she remarks in the article: “”if a school stops sending data [to U.S. News], the default assumption will be that it performs one standard deviation below the mean on numerous factors for which U.S. News can’t find published data, [thereby] making up the numbers it can’t get. The message is clear. Unless we are willing to be badly misrepresented, we had better send the information the magazine wants.” Tempted to opt out of providing U.S. News with reputation survey data, Sarah Lawrence learned that without that data, U.S. News would likewise assign a reputation number far lower than it would otherwise. This article makes especially clear the perils for schools of not playing ball with U.S. News. Myers commends Reed College for its principled stance in entirely eschewing the U.S. News rankings, but indicates that the danger for Sarah Lawrence was simply too much for her school to go that far.
  • Would U.S. News Make Up Fake Data? Article by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed in which he expands on the article above by Michele Myers. Jaschik shows how U.S. News penalizes schools that refuse to provide data they request by making up (concocting) the requested data in a way that will count against the schools (by assuming the data to be what would be least flattering to the schools).
  • Open letter by the Education Conservancy to College and University Presidents re U.S. News Rankings. This letter, signed by twelve college presidents, urges college and university presidents to (1) “Refuse to fill out the U.S. News & World Report reputational survey” and (2) “Refuse to use the rankings in any promotional efforts on behalf of your college or university, and more generally, refuse to refer to the rankings as an indication of the quality of your college or university.”
  • America’s Best College Scam. Huffington Post article by Peter Sacks, and updated in 2011. The piece argues that the U.S. News rankings amount “to little more than a pseudo-scientific and yet popularly legitimate tool for perpetuating inequality between educational haves and have nots.” This is a theme that Malcolm Gladwell revisited in his 2021 podcasts on the U.S. News rankings (see this timeline for 2021).
  • Breaking Ranks. Katherine Haley Will, president of Gettysburg College at the time and writing for the Washington Post, argues that reputation surveys cannot in a single number capture what’s good and valuable about a school. She writes: “We urge students to compare schools on a variety of factors (some of those in U.S. News are helpful, such as class sizes and student-faculty ratios; some, such as the heavily weighted reputational score, are not). They should visit campuses and go on what feels like a good match rather than relying on filtered or secondhand information. We must encourage students to look inside their hearts and trust their instincts when it comes to choosing a college, not whether parents or friends think a university is cool or prestigious.”
  • A better way to rank America’s colleges. Catharine Bond Hill, at the time president of Vassar College and writing for the Christian Science Monitor, suggests that the U.S. News rankings are deeply flawed but that it’s also on higher ed to come up with a “better mousetrap.” This is essentially our recommendation at AcademicInfluence.com — don’t merely criticize but come up with a replacement. Eric Hoover offers the same promise of a new and improved college ranking in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as does college president and administrator John Griffith, who compares a coming revolution in rankings to the coming of the iPhone, which hit the market in 2007. The iPhone clear was a winner, but we’ve yet to see a new winner in the rankings business.
  • ‘Hearsay’ Isn’t the Way to Choose a College. Peyton Helm, president at the time of Muhlenberg College, promised a new improved ranking: “Next year I and many other leaders of our nation’s best colleges and universities will be working on a new and better Web-based tool for families engaged in the college search, laying out essential statistics on admissions, costs, financial aid, majors and degree programs, diversity, campus life, graduation rates, and post-graduate options. Families can weigh each of these factors according to their own needs, interests, and priorities. Our tool will not have the razzle-dazzle of the Super Bowl or the Miss America contest, but it will provide a standardized, transparent, and easily accessible snapshot of key information that families need to make this important decision. I expect this will keep me busy, so don’t expect to see me on ‘’Dancing with the Stars.’.” This promise never materialized.
  • With an uprising to schools in 2007 to boycott the U.S. News rankings, there were also some who defended or otherwise indulged the U.S. News rankings: Robert Samuelson for the Washington Post, John Miller for National Review, Michael Skube for the LA Times, and Marty Kaplan for the Huffington Post.

2006

  • University Ranking Watch. Founded in 2006, it continues to this day to be critical of the U.S. News and of other college and university ranking organizations. As its website states, it offers “discussion and analysis of international university rankings and topics related to the quality of higher education.” It’s approach is more journalistic than op-edy, so it’s coverage of U.S. News tends to range from neutral to negative. But readers will be hard-pressed to find anything positive about U.S. News in this long-running blog.
  • Dead Poets and Academic Progenitors: The Next Generation of Law School Rankings. This summary of a symposium about the impact of U.S. News rankings an law education, is by Rafael Gely and Paul Caron for the University of Missouri School of Law Scholarship Repository. It’s a thoughtful and far ranging piece, and academics cited in it are not uniformly against U.S. News. But the author’s view is clear. Citing John Keating, played by actor Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society, and altering the context, the authors remark: “Law is not poetry, and ranking law schools might seem to some as absurd as the fictional Pritchard’s effort to rank poetry. Keating neatly captures the reaction that the U.S. News & World Report (“U.S. News”) law school rankings have evoked for nearly two decades among most of the legal academy: ‘Excrement... We’re not laying pipe’.”
  • College Rankings Reformed: The Case for a New Order in Higher Education. This is Kevin Carey’s white paper on higher ed rankings for Education Sector Reports. He sees the U.S. News rankings as inadequate. His solution? Federal action: “The only plausible path to a rankings-based accountability system that would be truly valuable to students and parents lies with federal action.” That’s because he sees voluntary submission of data on which such rankings need to be based as too easy refused, both by colleges and by students. He would like to see NSSE-type data (NSSE = National Survey of Student Engagement) incorporated into such a new and improved ranking system.
  • Do Rankings Matter? The Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on the Admissions Process of Law Schools. Artice in the Law & Society Review by Michael Sauder and Ryon Lancaster arguing that the U.S. News rankings are having a negative impact on law schools. As they note: “[W]e present evidence that the rankings can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for some schools, as the effects of rank described above alter the profile of their student bodies, affecting their future rank. Cumulatively, these findings suggest that the rankings help create rather than simply reflect differences among law schools through the magnification of the small, and statistically random, distinctions produced by the measurement apparatus.”

2005

  • Is There Life After Rankings? This article appeared in The Atlantic, and was subtitled “A report card from one college president, whose school now shuns the U.S. News ranking system—and has not only survived but thrived.” The author was the then-president of Reed College, Colin Diver. Diver shows how Reed successfully opted out of the U.S. News rankings. His conclusion is memorable: “Before I came to Reed, I thought I understood two things about college rankings: that they were terrible, and that they were irresistible. I have since learned that I was wrong about one of them.”
  • A Study on the Influences of the U.S. News and World Reports: America’s Best Colleges Rankings on Policy and Decision-Making at Southern Comprehensive Colleges. This dissertation for the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) by John D. Head shows the inordinate influence of the U.S. News rankings within the academy even back in 2005: “The research indicated that presidents of Tier 1 institutions were more likely to indicate that they promoted their rank to different constituencies than presidents in any other tier group. Tier 1 presidents were also more likely to state that the US News rankings were valid and accurate than presidents in any other tier group. While the presidents of Tier 2, 3, and 4 institutions were more likely to criticize the rankings, they also felt that the rankings were important to many of their constituencies. These presidents were also in agreement that a good ranking was beneficial to their institutions.” A pdf of the full dissertation is available online here.

2004

  • U.S. News’s corrupt college rankings. Writing for the College Advisor of New England, Robert Woodbury, a former chancellor of the University of Maine System, reprises his case against U.S. News from the previous year (see 2003 on our timeline).

2003

2002

2001

  • Broken Ranks. A serious early study, in the Washington Monthly, trying to push U.S. News rankings in a more salutary direction — in other words, trying to make them better. This piece was written by Nicholas Thompson and Amy Graham, who was the former director of data research for U.S. News.
  • College rankings are mostly about money. Article by Stuart Rojstaczer for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he argues that wealth of a school is the prime factor in giving it a high U.S. News ranking. Rojstaczer even set up a website in which he parodies the U.S. News rankings, which exists to this day: RankYourCollege.com. The four main rankings on this site are “the classic,” “the fairness,” “love my parents,” and “hate my parents.”
  • News You Can Abuse. This article in the University of Chicago Magazine by Chris Smith compares the U.S. News rankings to a beauty pageant and asks: “U.S. News and World Report has made its name among weeklies as ‘news you can use,’ but is its annual college-rankings issue a self-help feature or an academic beauty pageant?” The article concludes: “No matter how the [U.S. News] magazine chooses to measure schools, it is still ranking one against another in a near-random hierarchy — constructed to measure quality in quantitative terms — implying that there is an ideal state to which every school should endeavor until all schools are identical, that each school should be all things to all people — a task at which Chicago will always fail.” As it is, the University of Chicago has risen quite a bit in U.S. News rankings over the years.

2000

  • Playing With Numbers: How U.S. News mismeasures higher education and what we can do about it. Nicholas Thompson, writing for the Washington Monthly, analyzes the U.S. News and argues that they are on balance counterproductive. The one olive branch that he extends to U.S. News is this: “There are good things about the U.S. News rankings: They help high school students without college counselors figure out ballpark quality estimates of the schools they’re considering; and they have standardized the information that universities do make public.”
  • Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much. In this Harvard University Press book, Ronald Ehrenberg considers the various factors driving up tuition (that was over two decades ago, and things have not improved). Among these factors, he cites the rankings published by magazines like U.S. News, arguing that they cause a dysfunctional competition for students.

1999

  • The Decline and Fall of Literature. A review by Andrew Delbanco of several books on literature in the New York Review of Books. Delbanco considers ongoing changes in our conception of the university leading to its present “market-model university.” In this model, “university rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report″ are “widely derided” but also “widely read” and thus widely influential.

1998

  • Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit: Enhancing Equity & Excellence in College Admissions by Deemphasizing SAT and ACT Results. White paper by Charles Rooney et al. for Fair Test, a center that advocates fair and open testing. According to this piece: “Many colleges fear that dropping their SAT or ACT requirement will signal potential applicants that they are also lowering their academic standards. College ranking services help foster this notion by incorporating a school’s average SAT/ACT score into its overall ranking.” The article then cites U.S. News as an example of this type of college ranking service. This question has been with us to the present, and it seems that only with Covid and the challenges of taking the SAT and ACT in person has there been much progress on this question.

1997

  • U.S. News & World Report’s exclusive college rankings are taken from the 1997 edition of America’s Best Colleges. This is the earliest example of the U.S. News ranking to appear on the web (available at the Web Archive). Note especially the 1997 ranking of national universities and of liberal arts colleges.
  • The U.S News & World Report Hat Trick. From the Reed College November 1997 Magazine, by Harriet Watson, director of public affairs at Reed, describing the school’s third year into refusing to kowtow to U.S. News by providing them with the data they requested (Reed began refusing to participate in the U.S. News rankings in 1995). Reed is described as wanting to opt out of the U.S. News rankings entirely, but U.S. News continued to include them, though downgrading their ranking for not providing the data they requested.
  • The College Rankings Scam. Print article that appeared in the October 16, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone (unavailable online) describing how U.S. News responded to Reed College when in 1995 Reed refused to submit the data U.S. News was requesting/demanding: “So U.S. News punished Reed College. They gave it the lowest possible score in nearly every category. The school plunged to the bottom quartile. No other college had dropped so far, so fast.” Acknowledging that they had mishandled Reed’s case, in subsequent years Reed rose in the U.S. News rankings, but never to where it would have been had it not been recalcitrant.
  • Alma College’s President Urges Boycott of “U.S. News” Rankings. News announcement by the Chronicle of Higher Education about Alma College’s ultimately vain attempt to get a critical mass of liberal arts colleges to opt out of the U.S. News rankings. Key quote: “Last fall, Alma College surveyed 158 presidents, provosts, and admissions officers about the U.S. News rankings. According to the college, 84 per cent of the respondents admitted that they were unfamiliar with some of the institutions they had been asked to rank. Almost 44 per cent indicated that they “tended to leave responses for unfamiliar schools blank.”
  • Stanford University mulls over rankings. Stanford’s half-heartedly gestures at doing the right thing, but in the end has too much to gain by ranking highly in the U.S. News rankings.
  • An Alternative to the U.S. News & World Report College Survey. Another open letter by then Stanford University president Gerhard Casper. He’s hoping to do an end run around the U.S. News rankings by making data about the school public. Casper’s sensibilities seem right, but in the end Stanford ended up capitulating to U.S. News. Casper does urge the following: (1) ”U.S. News should eliminate its attempt to rank colleges and universities like automobiles or toasters. The fact that the rankings of many institutions change dramatically from year to year says more about inconsistent scoring methods than actual changes in quality. Such movement is entirely misleading.” (2) ”U.S. News should stop drawing inappropriate conclusions from the data. For example, last year the magazine introduced a “value-added” score based on “predicted” vs. actual graduation rates. As a result, some of the most rigorous programs in the country were penalized precisely because they do not make college so easy that everyone graduates.” (3) ”U.S. News should stop making ‘statistical estimates’ to substitute for data not provided by a college or university or otherwise available in exactly the defined form. It is surely a violation of the standards of journalism to invent ‘facts’.”
  • Stanford Takes On U.S. News Rankings. Despite Stanford’s continued public critique of U.S. News rankings throughout 1997, this piece by Elaine Ray for Stanford Today suggests that Stanford nonetheless remained ensnared by these rankings: “Institutions like Stanford are so concerned with the numerical rankings that they often set their priorities in the interest of improving them... [T]he trustees’ focus[ed] on fundraising after U.S. News ranked the university 77th in the ‘alumni giving’ category in the magazine’s 1993 issue. As Stanford’s rate of alumni giving has improved ­ from 18 percent in 1993 to 31 percent in 1996,­ so has Stanford’s U.S. News rank in that category. In the 1996 issue of the magazine, Stanford ranked 26th in alumni giving. Stanley O. Ikenberry of the American Council on Education in Washington says that though institutions play down the importance of rankings, colleges and universities sometimes use them to shape internal policy decisions.” (Emphasis added) Elise Ray wrote a follow-up article.

1996

  • The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press book by Bill Readings argues that the contemporary university has become a techno-bureaucratic corporation and accordingly interested in profit margins. For-profit ranking organizations like U.S. News feed perfectly into this reconceptualization of the university.
  • Stanford Students Attack “U.S. News” College Rankings. Nick Thompson, writing in later years in the Washington Monthly against the U.S. News rankings (see this timeline for 2000 and 2001), as a Stanford undergrad in 1996 tried to steer Stanford to take the same hard line against providing U.S. News with data as Reed College (which decided in 1995 to stop providing its data). To that end, he helped found FUNC (= Forget U.S. News Coalition) at Stanford. This coalition persisted for several years, disbanding around 2006. Stanford, as it is, never did forgo giving its data to U.S. News, for which it has been rewarded with high rankings ever since.
  • Open letter from then Stanford president Gerhard Casper to James Fallows, then editor of U.S. News & World Report, critical of the U.S. News rankings. Casper was president at Stanford from 1992-2000. Some key quotes from his letter: “Much about these rankings - particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision - is utterly misleading. I wish I could forego this letter since, after all, the rankings are only another newspaper story. Alas, alumni, foreign newspapers, and many others do not bring a sense of perspective to the matter.” Later in the letter: “Were U.S. News, under your leadership, to walk away from these misleading rankings, it would be a powerful display of common sense. I fear, however, that these rankings and their byproducts have become too attention-catching for that to happen.” And finally: “Parents are confused and looking for guidance on the best choice for their particular child and the best investment of their hard-earned money. Your demonstrated record gives me hope that you can begin to lead the way away from football-ranking mentality and toward helping to inform, rather than mislead, your readers.” This last hope has yet to be realized.

1995

  • Cheat Sheets: Colleges Inflate SATs And Graduation Rates In Popular Guidebooks. This Wall Street Journal article was published by Steve Stecklow in April 1995. All the main concerns about the U.S. News rankings are voiced even at this early date. Thus Stecklow notes that “schools say they must fib to U.S. News and others to compete effectively” and he cites a university president as saying “We all live and die by those rankings.” What has changed in the intervening decades?

What Is to Be Done?

It would be best for higher education if the U.S. News rankings would just go away, but that’s unlikely to happen. It would also be great if colleges and universities would boycott the U.S. News rankings, refusing to submit information to them and refusing to tout their rankings through their admissions departments. But that’s also unlikely to happen.

Reed College has been the shining light in standing against the U.S. News rankings. But when it took its principled stance in boycotting the U.S. News rankings back in 1995, other schools refused to follow suit. Stanford, for a moment, seemed poised to do so, and given Stanford’s standing in higher education, it might have been able to sway much of the academy. But it pulled back, as did most schools.

In 2007, a number of liberal arts colleges attempted a coup against the U.S. News rankings, which is reflected on this timeline by the flurry of articles that year. The Annapolis Group in 2007 assumed the mantle of defeating the U.S. News ranking. That group exists to this day, but it gives no evidence on its website of calling U.S. News to account. In any case, the high promises of 2007 quickly dwindled, as reflected in the paucity of articles on U.S. News the following year.

The title of this article (“College Rankings Held Hostage”) was chosen deliberately. Colleges and universities face a prisoner’s dilemma in confronting the U.S. News rankings. In the prisoner’s dilemma, there is a course of action which, if all parties in question hold to it, will lead to the best overall outcome for everyone. But if someone defects, those taking the action that would benefit all get penalized (like Reed College). And so, the participants, rather than doing the right thing are tempted and succumb to a course of action that is likely to benefit them individually but harm the collective good. That’s what we face with the U.S. News rankings.

What school doesn’t like to see itself touted in a ranking? Recognition is the lifeblood of the academy. Citation indexes, measures of influence, reputations for academic excellence, and prestige are all forms of recognition deeply embedded in the academy. And why not? You don’t get into teaching, research, or university administration for the money. If you want money, become an entrepreneur or be a rising star in a big corporation. The currency of the academy is recognition.

The problem with the U.S. News rankings is not that they attempt to recognize excellence in the academy but that they do such a poor job of it, elevating and mixing criteria of excellence that are easily gamed and that at the end of the day don’t give true and insightful information about whether, and the degree to which, institutions of higher learning are indeed excellent.

It’s the same problem as with standardized testing in primary and secondary schools. Because states put a premium on students performing well on these tests, rewarding teachers and school districts with high-scoring students, students are taught how to do well on the tests rather than to actually learn the subjects that are being tested. And so, instead of learning math or English with genuine comprehension, students learn to score well on standardized tests about math and English.

Colleges and universities trying to improve their U.S. News ranking face the same temptation as school districts trying to raise test scores. College and universities thus adapt themselves to suit the U.S. News rankings rather than to genuinely improve their educational offerings. In other words, to please U.S. News, they put the cart before the horse. But, as always, the horse, in this case doing what’s needed to actually improve a school’s education, needs to come before the cart, in this case going up in the ranking. An improvement in school rankings should be a byproduct of an actual improvement in the school itself.

In describing the perverse incentives that drive colleges and universities to game the U.S. News rankings, we don’t mean to moralize. Schools are in a difficult position. The U.S. News rankings materially impact schools. These rankings cannot simply be ignored. Nor is doing what worked yesterday sufficient for today — schools cannot simply rest on their laurels. College and university rankings constitute a zero-sum game. If one school goes up in a ranking, another must come down. And with all schools striving to move up, what emerges is an arms race, with schools desperately trying to outrank each other.

So is there a solution? College and university rankings are not going away. We are inveterate rankers, putting objects into an order from more to less, better to worse, bigger to smaller. Schools readily invite rankings. Anything we measure about schools, from test scores to graduation rates to endowment size, gives you numbers that can be ordered in a ranking. And the fact is, we do use rankings to decide on where to go to school.

The point therefore is to have available and use better rankings to guide our educational choices. A big problem with the U.S. News rankings is that they depend heavily on reputation surveys that are highly subjective and in many cases involve reputations being assigned to schools about which the survey takers know nothing. Additionally, many of the other ranking criteria (such as alumni giving, test scores, and graduation rates) can be easily gamed and may not even correlate with a better education.

Our proposed solution is to construct better rankings that help students make better decisions about the schools they will attend and the type of education they will get. We are attempting to do just that at AcademicInfluence.com, and a few (not many) other ranking organizations are attempting to do likewise. The statesman Napoleon III once remarked that you never really destroy a thing till you have replaced it. The challenge is to create rankings of colleges and universities that are so much better, so much more insightful than the U.S. News rankings that people will vote with their feet and turn elsewhere.

It needs to get to the point where instead of schools, parents, and students exulting in the latest U.S. News rankings (rightly compared to a “beauty contest” in the timeline above), they dismiss them as the tripe that they are. Better rankings need to become widely known and supplant the U.S. News rankings, and the inferiority of the U.S. News rankings needs to become such a byword that people are embarrassed to mention them. Such an aspiration may seem grandiose, but it would be best for higher education. At AcademicInfluence.com that is our aspriation — to create the best rankings for higher education and in the process supplant the U.S. News rankings. Wish us luck!

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