We should not fret about college rankings

A design of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings sign with "Best" crossed out and "Subjective" written on top in red.
(Anoushka Buch | Daily Trojan)

When the U.S. News and World Report published its 2022 list of Best National Colleges last week, students were surprised to see a dip in USC’s ranking. This unexpected downturn, along with the USC football team’s tragic defeat by Stanford, caused some bitterness across the University community.

USC’s national ranking has taken a slippery slope in the past few years. USC’s highest ranking for best national universities was from 2017 when it ranked No. 21 out of 311 universities, shoulder-to-shoulder with UCLA. However, USC’s rank gradually began dropping after 2017 and went from No. 22 in 2018 and 2019 to No. 24 in 2020. In the latest ranking, it ended up at No. 27.

USC’s dip in rankings starkly contrasts its rising tuition costs, which raised some dissatisfaction among students. However, the current ranking does not speak to university’s overall quality. The pandemic, along with U.S. News’ controversial ranking method, has contributed to the fluctuation of college rankings every year.

First of all, the pandemic has changed the traditional college admissions process. Many universities canceled their requirements for standardized testing, and U.S. News also adjusted its weight for student selectivity. The media company indicated on its website that its “latest data available for the ranking calculations pertained to Fall 2020 and earlier.” The institution also claimed it adjusted its assessment of SAT/ACT scores and incorporated more “historic data for a few of the other ranking indicators.” This suggests that the data used by U.S. News was outdated and did not necessarily reflect the current academic caliber of universities.

Secondly, the U.S. News’ ranking criteria has long been mired in controversies. Journalists, such as Max Kutner, and some education websites have already pointed out that universities can strategically increase their rankings by using a certain set of criteria. Years ago, Northeastern University was a little-known regional commuter school. According to the Boston Globe, to attract better students and more donations, Northeastern looked into the ranking formula and manipulated criteria to improve the university’s overall ranking. As a result, Northeastern’s ranking rose from No. 162 in the 1990s to No. 98 in 2006. The incident shows that the system can be gamed and, therefore, questions the authority and validity of the rankings.

A crucial part of the U.S. News ranking formula pertains to reputations, which make up 20% of the total score. The College Solution website pointed out that U.S. News uses a rather subjective method to calculate reputation. The organization invites three administrations from schools in the national university category to rate other schools from one to five. However, the evaluation process’ design itself is highly biased, and not all university administrators respond to the survey, making the final result even more inaccurate.

Ultimately, the U.S. News rankings focus on the academic performance of universities but ignore students’ quality of life on campus. According to an article published by the Daily Trojan, USC reached a 50-50 gender ratio in the Viterbi School of Engineering, as well as Marshall School of Business. Gender parity encourages diversity in STEM, business and other male dominated fields. Ultimately, this provides a nontoxic environment to female students and enhances their university experience, which can lead to a more successful career route. 

Apart from the gender ratio, the small student-faculty ratio at USC also benefits students. Universities such as UCLA have an 18:1 student-faculty ratio, while USC’s is 9:1. This means that USC students have smaller-sized classes and, therefore, more individualized attention from faculty. This provides them with better learning experiences overall.

The regular change of U.S. News’ formula makes college rankings fluctuate every year. The result only speaks for the perspective of one specific institution, and it would be arbitrary to judge a school based on it. USC ranked No. 14 in the country according to 2021 QS World University Rankings: USA, and came in at No. 16 in Niche’s 2022 Best Colleges in America. These statistics, once again, show that ranking is a subjective process and certainly does not reflect the real worth of the University.

Overall, students should not let rankings affect their impression of USC. They should actively engage with their life on campus and fully immerse themselves in their college experience. Instead of relying on rankings, students can discover and determine the value of their university themselves.