Critics call college rankings 'a joke' -- here's why every list has a different No.1

Walking campus students collegeMichael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesCollege rankings don’t really tell you much unless you know the methodology that goes with them.

College rankings are ubiquitous as the school year starts. U.S. News & World Report, Niche, and Times Higher Education all released rankings in September.

The proliferation of these rankings have led some to revolt against the concept of neatly bucketing schools on lists where they are in the “top” or “bottom” of rankings, especially as top performers tend to be expensive private schools, and ballooning student debt calls into question college affordability.

Frank Bruni, a columnist at New York Times, wrote an especially damning a piece ridiculing college rankings he called “Why College Rankings Are a Joke.”

“The rankings nourish the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education; don’t adequately recognise public institutions that prioritise access and affordability; and do insufficient justice to the particular virtues of individual campuses,” he wrote before the U.S. News rankings came out in 2016.

Yet the rankings are still highly cited, and do offer important data about aspects of a particular college, if readers are able to decipher them.

For those who are having a hard time understanding why college rankings all offer different results, Business Insider put together a few charts to break down the anatomy of each.

U.S. News has been ranking American colleges annually for more than 30 years. Since then, a familiar cast of Ivy League colleges has dominated the top three slots, with Harvard, Princeton, and Yale typically rounding out the top three. In recent years, the University of Chicago has inched its way up the list and tied with Yale this year.

The methodology includes both quantitative and qualitative factors. Graduation and retention rates make up one of the most weighted components, which is backed by data. But equally highly weighted at 22.5% are the “opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence.”

That means an aspect of highly ranked universities may be self-perpetuating. Princeton’s No. 1 ranking may contribute to its excellent reputation, which boosts qualitative rankings by peers, in turn helping it keep its No. 1 ranking.

At 20%, faculty resources is the third most important component of the methodology, which includes class size, faculty salary, and proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields.

The top 10 colleges as ranked by U.S. News & World Report:

10. California Institute of Technology

9. Duke University

8. University of Pennsylvania

5. Stanford University (tie)

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (tie)

5. Columbia University (tie)

3. Yale University (tie)

3. University of Chicago (tie)

2. Harvard University

1. Princeton University

Niche also ranks US colleges and universities, and places substantial weight on reviews from students and alumni. Niche prides itself on the qualitative nature of its ranking, boasting that it has “the most comprehensive data in the industry” and is “able to provide a more comprehensive suite of rankings across all school types.”

In fact, survey responses from students and alumni factor into every single component of the methodology, even ones readers may assume are purely data-driven. For example, the largest weighted factor is the “academics grade” which includes: acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school.

While U.S. News doesn’t incorporate salary, Niche looks to the financial “value” of the college, and includes statistics on average loan about and alumni earnings. But the average loans and alumni earnings component also includes student surveys regarding the value of the school.

The top 10 colleges as ranked by Niche:

10. California Institute of Technology

9. Bowdoin College

8. Brown University

7. University of Pennsylvania

6. Princeton University

5. Rice University

4. Yale University

3. Harvard University

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1. Stanford University

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, as the name alludes, ranks schools around the world. Like the U.S. News ranking, the methodology includes a mix of both quantitative and qualitative factors.

The teaching component includes a reputation survey given to measure the “perceived prestige of institutions in teaching” as well as the student-teacher ratio at the school.

Research includes a survey to judge “university’s reputation for research excellence among its peers,” and a measure of income the school makes related to its research.

Citations are a measure of how often a university’s published work is cited by scholars globally, and international outlook is the ability of a university to attract students and faculty from all over the world.

The top 10 US colleges as ranked by Times Higher Education:

10. Columbia University

9. Johns Hopkins University

8. Yale University

7. University of Pennsylvania

6. University of Chicago

5. Princeton University

4. Harvard University

3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1. Stanford University (tie)

1. California Institute of Technology (tie)

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