College rankings, especially broad “best” lists based on self-reported data, are more often a form of bragging rights than a reliable resource for prospective students. They evolved into a game that schools play against each other, with the prize being prestige.

    Some college administrators have even been sentenced to prison terms for trying to cheat the system to improve their institution’s rankings. People have gone this far because these lists have measurable positive and negative consequences, including financial ones, for schools.

    Simply ranking in the top 25 schools can lead to a 6-10% increase in applications. Conversely, falling rankings, as Columbia University did on the 2022-2023 U.S. News & World Report Top National Universities list, can cause applications to plummet and cost schools tens of millions. of dollars.

    Rankings are used in very different ways by different stakeholders: as a profitable product for publishers, a powerful marketing tool for schools, and a kind of guide for prospective students and families. It wouldn’t be a problem if all stakeholders were aligned with the main purpose of the rankings as an overview of the best schools based on a comprehensive list of factors reflecting a range of perspectives with rigorously tested statistical methodologies.

    But it doesn’t, and potential students end up losing out because of it. Concepts like “best” or “most valuable” are extremely difficult to quantify when there is so much variety between schools and student experience. Rankings with unique metrics based on limited data derived from faulty methodologies are not pursued by schools or assembled by publishers as a resource first and foremost, but rather as a product to sell. Former Stanford University president Gerhard Casper identified these shortcomings in 1996, and they still persist.

    However, some players, including Yale and Harvard, are refusing to participate in the game. As college rankings face more high-profile reckoning, EDsmart explored why college rankings are — and always have been — a controversial practice.

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