U.S. News Depends On its College Rankings. What Happens When Universities Don’t Want To Be Ranked?

In the past few months, numerous high-ranked universities have dropped out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, spelling trouble for the future of the nearly 80-year old publication.

Students walk along the green campus of Princeton University
Student walk along the campus of Princeton University. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

For decades, schools, deans and even students have called for an overhaul of the annual U.S. News & World Report university rankings, to no avail.

But in the past few months, a series of public statements from top-ranked universities has begun to finally pose a real threat to U.S. News, which has been the dominant player in the rankings industry for nearly 40 years. 

In November, Yale Law School, which has been listed as the top law school by U.S. News for three decades, announced it would no longer submit data for the rankings. Citing U.S. News’s discounting of public interest careers and an overemphasis on standardized testing, Dean Heather Gerken called the rankings “profoundly flawed” in a public statement. More than a dozen law schools, including those at Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, all ranked in the top four, promptly followed suit.

A few months later, the same revolt was replicated within medical schools. Harvard Medical School, No. 1 on U.S. News’s rankings of medical schools for research, announced in January it would also withdraw from the rankings, claiming they are too rigid to reflect a school’s educational mission. In the past month, more than half of the medical schools also listed in the top 20 by U.S. News additionally announced they will no longer participate with the rankings.

Universities are not the only entity ranked by U.S. News, which creates a number of annual lists for the best hospitals, travel destinations and financial institutions. But the schools, which the organization began ranking in 1983, are its signature product.

“It is in many ways the jewel in their crown,” said Colin Diver, the former president of Reed College, which has refused to fill out U.S. News’ surveys since 1995. “When that starts to get tarnished, it may well tarnish the rest of their reputation.”

Dominating the rankings industry

While it was first launched as a weekly magazine in the 1940s, U.S. News & World Report folded its print edition in 2010 after financial losses, deciding instead to emphasize digital content and annual rankings. The publication is owned by real estate billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman, who formerly owned the New York Daily News and the Atlantic, while its rankings department has long been led by chief data strategist Robert Morse. Zuckerman and Morse did not respond to requests for an interview.

U.S. News also declined to discuss its revenue regarding the university rankings. “They’ve been very secret about their business model,” said Diver. “But they attract a very large amount of revenue from advertising on their site.”

In 2013, the company saw 20 million viewers a month and made 20 percent of its revenue from online searches for lists, while another 30 percent came from online advertising, according to the Washington Post. Today, US News claims more than 40 million users a month visit its site for news and rankings.

U.S. News additionally makes money from College Compass, a subscription service for prospective university applicants which provides access to more detailed university data for $40 a month. The service offers personalized university rankings for students, taking into account aspects like a preference for fraternities and sororities or alumni salaries.

Other products sold by U.S. News include annual Best College guidebooks; subscriptions to Academic Insights, which offers historical data collected by U.S. News; and advertising opportunities for universities to promote programs through the publication.

Universities, in addition to other ranked entities like hospitals, can also pay to license the U.S. News “best of” badge in order to promote their inclusion on one of the publication’s lists. “It’s like a logo that schools can put on their website,” said Eric Stoller, a marketing executive at Territorium, which digitally collects university records. For smaller schools, promoting inclusion on a U.S. News ranking website is a common marketing move, said Stoller, who formerly worked at Oregon State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

These various products are also a marketing method for the publication itself, according to Carlo Salerno, an economist who has advised federal and national institutions on financial aspects of higher education. “In general, the rankings exist to raise visibility about U.S. News,” he said. “When you start seeing those kinds of licensing deals from a news publication, it’s evidence that they’re becoming increasingly reliant on that as a source of revenue.”

While a number of other publications also rank aspects of universities, such as Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, which rank business schools, U.S. News has long dominated the industry of school lists and rankings, particularly for undergraduates. However, the tide has begun to turn against the rankings industry in the past decade or so, according to Salerno. “As people start to care about other things, rankings look like an ugly form of elitism.”

Will the revolt turn into a full-fledged rebellion?

This change in sentiment was likely a catalyst for the recent stand taken against U.S. News by Yale Law School, according to Diver. “They’ve become increasingly troubled by the image of elite law schools as doing nothing more than feeding big Wall Street type corporate law firms and not caring very much about social justice and mobility,” he said. “They’re well aware of the fact that the rankings tend to perpetuate prestige and wealth.”

A recent bout of negative publicity surrounding the rankings also hasn’t helped. In December 2021, the former dean of Temple University’s business school was found guilty of wire fraud for submitting fraudulent data to U.S. News regarding the school’s online MBA program. A few months later, Michael Thaddeus, a math professor at Columbia University, exposed inaccurate and inflated data behind the school’s No. 2 place on U.S. News’ 2022 ranking of the best universities. And in August, Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, called the rankings system “a joke” which prioritizes prestige and exclusivity.

“From my own experience, the vast majority of college administrators don’t like the rankings,” said Diver, who was also formerly dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. “I also know that the vast majority of them feel as though it would be suicide to disarm unilaterally, because U.S. News in the past has often punished schools that pulled out.” Reed College, for example, has reportedly long been underranked by U.S. News because of its refusal to participate.

But top-ranked schools with widespread name recognition, such as those in the Ivy League, don’t really need the rankings. “We didn’t see any lessening in the demand for Columbia,” said Andrew Belasco, CEO of College Transitions, a college counseling service, despite the university falling to No. 18 on U.S. News’ rankings after it admitted to providing inaccurate data. “When you get to that tier of school, the Ivys are the Ivys.”

And once schools like Yale Law School decide to leave, those listed below them are given a sense of protection, said Diver, as U.S. News can’t punish all of them.

So far, only graduate programs have decided to halt participation with the rankings system. This is partially due to timing, said Diver, as the U.S. News rankings for graduate programs come out in March, and is fresh on the minds of deans. Meanwhile, undergraduate lists are typically revealed around September.

The bellwether school for the undergraduate rankings is Princeton, which has topped U.S. News’ best university list for more than a decade. Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, has repeatedly condemned U.S. News rankings in the past but has yet to withdraw participation. Eisgruber’s office declined requests for comment.

“In the realm of undergraduate rankings, the only way I can see the rankings losing credibility is through a cascade effect,” said Diver. Other top-ranked schools like Harvard or the University of Pennsylvania are also well-positioned to take charge, he said. “But among that group, there has to be some leadership.”

The declining relevance of rankings

An exodus of schools participating with U.S. News, however, does not mean that those schools will continue to be ranked through public data available from entities like the U.S. Department of Education. On Jan. 2, in a statement to law school deans, Morse said that U.S. News will continue ranking law schools regardless of whether they complete data surveys from the publication.

The average prospective student won’t be aware that a particular school has stopped sending data to U.S. News, Belasco said.  Every year, Belasco has to explain to clients that Reed College doesn’t participate with the U.S. News rankings, despite being included on its lists.

The impact on U.S. News will depend on how vocal universities are about their refusal to participate, he said. “If there’s an exodus, a big move away, I think (students) will know.”

A revolt against the rankings would also affect other services, such as College Compass, said Belasco, whose company uses the program. “Compass is used quite a bit by counselors and families,” he said, adding that would likely subside if numerous universities stopped providing data.

There’s also a possibility that U.S. News will listen to the criticisms of university personnel and adapt their ratings accordingly, said Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors. “Maybe it’ll force the rankings agencies to be more transparent themselves,” she said. “If it opens the door for other ways of measuring colleges, that would be awesome.”

In his recent letter to law schools, Morse revealed that U.S. News has taken some of the deans’ criticisms into account and will modify its methodology in the future by giving more weight to fellowships and potentially factors like loan forgiveness and financial aid. However, none of the law schools which rebelled against the rankings have turned back on their decision so far.

And a long-term refusal to participate won’t just affect U.S. News’ university rankings. “To the extent that they’re ranking corporate entities, an erosion of credibility in college rankings would start to spill over in those domains,” said Diver.

The publication likely won’t see an immediate impact, but instead a gradual lack of relevance in the world of higher education, according to Salerno. “They’ll only do this if it generates leads and eyeballs and they can then leverage that information,” he said. “With fewer people, eventually it’s a plant that withers, and that’s what you’ll probably get.”

U.S. News Depends On its College Rankings. What Happens When Universities Don’t Want To Be Ranked?