Defending Its Rankings, U.S. News Claims Elite Universities Are Evading Accountability

U.S. News accuses top-ranked universities of having ulterior motives for leaving the publication's annual rankings.

Campus of Harvard University, grassy quad with brick building in background.
The rankings publication is defending itself against criticisms from Ivy League schools. (Photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images)

Eric Gertler, CEO and executive chairman of U.S. News & World Report, defended the publication’s contentious university rankings in an opinion piece published yesterday (Feb. 28) in the Wall Street Journal.

In the past few months, more than a dozen top-ranked medical schools and at least 40 law schools, including those at Yale and Harvard, have publicly announced they will no longer submit data to U.S. News’s rankings, contending its methodology is flawed and disproportionately benefits higher-income students.

However, according to Gertler’s op-ed, this perspective is limited to “elite schools” and “doesn’t fit with that of the broader law and medical-school community.” Outside of the 14 top-ranked law schools, nearly 75 percent of the schools which submitted data to U.S. News in 2022 also did so in 2023, wrote Gertler, adding that the engagement level was even higher for medical schools.

U.S. News, owned by real estate billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman, first launched as a weekly magazine in the 1940s, but is now primarily known for its digital content and annual lists of rankings. The publication’s signature product is its university rankings, which it began in 1983 and have since expanded to include multiple products, including a subscription service for prospective students and annual Best College guidebooks.

Gertler is suggesting the rankings are most valuable at universities which aren’t brand names or highly ranked, according to Colin Diver, former head of Reed College and University of Pennsylvania’s law school. The irony is the rankings are taken most seriously by prospective students looking to attend highly-ranked institutions. he said. “And U.S. News has created that situation by the way they’ve marketed and structured their rankings product for the past 40 years.”

In his defense of the rankings system, Gertler also suggested that criticism of U.S. News is misdirected. “While we know that our rankings are important to students, we’re incredulous that our critics blame our rankings for just about every issue academia confronts,” he wrote, listing free speech, equity and the cost of degrees as topics that are irrelevant to the rankings. He did not give examples of these critics or where these critiques could be found.

These statements are designed to “pin the rankings criticism on some sort of ‘woke’ political views,” said Diver, who has been an outspoken critic of U.S. News. “It’s obviously designed to speak to the critics of left-leaning elite higher education.”

By placing the piece  in the Wall Street Journal opinion section, known for its right-wing perspectives, Gertler knows he’s likely to find a sympathetic audience, since the publication is historically defensive of university rankings, according to Diver.

Do schools have an ulterior motive for withdrawing?

Gertler additionally suggested high-ranked institutions are incentivized to leave the rankings because of two cases in front of the Supreme Court which could see a decision made against affirmative action in university admissions. “Some law deans are already exploring ways to sidestep any restrictive ruling by reducing their emphasis on test scores and grades—criteria used in our rankings.”

The implication is that by preemptively dropping out of rankings, the universities’ reputation won’t fall when they stop using grades and test scores in admissions, said Diver.

Gerler is suggesting that some universities withdrawing from U.S. News actually have ulterior motives and are not because of issues with the rankings themselves, according to Robert Wynne, president of Wynne Communications, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm specializing in higher education.

“U.S. News & World Report makes millions off these rankings every year,” said Wynne, adding that a serious challenge to the annual rankings could have significant repercussions on the company’s profitability.

The publication’s response to recent criticisms appears to primarily be marketed at universities, in an attempt to persuade educational institutions of the altruistic nature of the rankings, he said. “They’re trying to gently convince at best, or shame at worst, these schools into participating.”

Defending Its Rankings, U.S. News Claims Elite Universities Are Evading Accountability