U.S. News & World Report's rankings of the nation's best colleges and universities have been at the pinnacle of educational excellence for decades. But with a growing number of the nation's top law and medical schools now boycotting the annual lists, could this be the end of the college ranking system as we know it? Here's everything you need to know:
What are the 'U.S. News & World Report' college rankings?
For over 30 years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked the nation's undergraduate and graduate institutions across a slate of annual lists, each with an outsized ability to influence a university's reputation. Students often reference the rankings when choosing a school or program to attend, while colleges themselves work overtime to improve (or maintain) their highly-publicized spot. But despite the lists' influence, higher education experts have long criticized the rankings, which they believe promote elitism and rely on a flawed methodology.
Why are certain grad schools boycotting the rankings?
The drama first began in November 2022, when the dean of Yale Law School announced her decision to part ways with the law school list. "The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed — they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession," Dean Heather Gerken said at the time. "We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession." Despite Yale having been ranked in the top spot since the law school list's inception, Gerken said U.S. News' methodology "not only fails to advance the legal profession but stands squarely in the way of progress."
Hours later, Harvard Law School followed suit and announced it would also be withdrawing from the rankings. "It has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect," Dean John Manning wrote in a message to the Harvard Law community. Over a dozen other law schools with similar concerns eventually joined Harvard and Yale in their boycott.
Inspired by his law counterparts, Harvard Medical School Dean George Daley in January decided to pull his school from the rankings, as well. In a letter, Daley said he had been reconsidering his program's participation in the U.S. News process since becoming dean six years earlier, and that his concerns were "more philosophical than methodological."
"Rankings cannot meaningfully reflect the high aspirations for educational excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care that we strive to foster in our medical education program," he said.
Twelve other medical schools have since joined Harvard in boycotting the list, per Becker's Hospital Review, including those at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Stanford University. J. Larry Jameson, dean of Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, said the rankings "perpetuate a vision for medical education and the future physician and scientist workforce that we do not share." He also denounced the lists' overemphasis on high test scores and grades, noting "we strive to identify and attract students with a wide array of characteristics that predict promise."
How has 'U.S. News' responded to critics?
U.S. News responded to the wave of law school boycotts by announcing new criteria for future lists while stating that it would continue to rank law schools based on data from the American Bar Association, "whether or not schools respond to our annual survey." After hearing from over 100 law school representatives, the magazine decided to lessen its emphasis on peer evaluations, give equal weight to all fellowships, and make data more transparent for prospective students.
"We have helped expand the universe of well-known law schools beyond the club of Ivy League schools of the last century, " U.S. News wrote in a letter to law school deans. "But we realize that legal education is neither monolithic nor static and that the rankings, by becoming so widely accepted, may not capture the individual nuances of each school in the larger goal of using a common set of data."
It remains to be seen whether the outlet will make similar changes to the medical school ranking methodology. Otherwise, it has continued to defend its rankings as an essential resource for prospective students and their families.
"Our mission is to help prospective students make the best decisions for their educational future," U.S. News CEO Eric Gertler said in a statement responding to Harvard Medical School's departure. "Where students attend school and how they use their education are among the most critical decisions of their life, and with admissions more competitive and less transparent, and tuition increasingly expensive, we believe students deserve access to all the data and information necessary to make the right decision."
Is this the beginning of the end for college ranking systems?
The dean of Yale Law certainly thinks so. In an interview with The Atlantic, Gerken said her subsequent discussions with U.S. News "really cemented our decision to leave the rankings." She described the publication as a "commercial entity" that lacks legal-education expertise and "has produced a set of rankings that don't give a full and accurate picture for the huge, varied set of institutions."
"In the 40 years of rankings, this is the biggest shock to the system — that gives me hope," Colin Diver, a former president of the ranking-abstinent Reed College, told the Journal's Josh Zumbrun. Even so, such hope is "likely to be in vain," Zumbrun continued. Sure, prospective students might have a better college experience if they consider factors beyond ranking when selecting a school. But will they actually start to "ignore publicly available compilations of how their schools rank? Probably not anytime soon."
Further, it remains to be seen whether universities will pull their undergraduate programs from the rankings, as well. "It's fascinating they go, 'That graduate school methodology is trash. Oh, let's not talk about the undergraduate,'" Akil Bello, director of advocacy for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, told the Chronicle of Higher Education's Francie Diep.