College Rankings

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Reed and the Rankings Game

Why doesn’t Reed participate in U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings? We hear this question every year—often from prospective students who are trying to square our reputation as an intellectual powerhouse with our weirdly low grade from U.S. News.

The short answer is that we pulled out of the U.S. News survey in 1995 because of our conviction that the magazine’s methodology is hopelessly flawed—a belief widely shared in the educational community. Although we would prefer that U.S. News simply leave us out of their survey, the magazine persists in ranking us against other colleges, based on data that are questionable at best. We believe that the value of an education is directly related to the degree of intellectual engagement in the classroom—something that U.S. News does not and cannot measure. However, we recognize the usefulness of independent guides and we work hard to provide families with solid, reliable information to help them choose the right college.

For those who are curious about the details, here's the backstory.

In the Beginning...

Some things in life are reasonably easy to rank—the tallest buildings, the biggest states, the heaviest elements. When it comes to defining the best college, however, the concept of rank begins to lose its meaning, especially in the case of the U.S. News survey, which takes a one-size-fits-all approach to institutions with radically different missions and character—a bit like asking whether the Beatles are better than Beethoven.

Nonetheless, Reed participated in the survey until 1995, when a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal revealed that many colleges were manipulating the system—some by “massaging” their numbers, others by outright fabrication.1 In the wake of these reports, Steven Koblik, then-president of Reed, informed the editors of U.S. News that he didn’t find their project credible and that the college would not be returning any of their surveys—the unaudited questionnaires that form the basis of the U.S. News ranking system.

Reed’s decision won praise from professors and administrators far and wide, many of whom had witnessed the pernicious effects of the rankings. The next year, however, instead of simply omitting Reed from its list, the magazine assigned Reed the lowest possible score in several areas and relegated the college to the lowest tier—the most precipitous decline in the history of the U.S. News ratings. Since then, Reed’s rank has bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball in a game where the rules keep changing.

Are the Rankings Valid?

Over the years, U.S. News has made many adjustments to its system in an effort to prevent manipulation. Unfortunately, examples of misreporting are still widespread. In 2012, several prestigious colleges admitted submitting inflated data. Other institutions have employed creative statistical techniques, such as encouraging more students to apply, and then rejecting them, in order to climb up a few rungs  in the rankings.

The sad truth is that colleges and universities have a powerful incentive to game the system. The U.S. News rankings remain enormously popular—and surprisingly influential—despite widespread skepticism within the educational community. Just 2% of college admission directors think ranking systems are very effective at helping prospective students find a good fit, and 91% believe that institutions are cheating the system. In a similar vein, 89% of high school counselors and college admission officers reckon that the U.S. News rankings offer misleading conclusions about institutional quality; 83% think the rankings create confusion for prospective students and their families; and only 3% believe that the title “America’s Best Colleges” is accurate.

Even when statistics are accurate, they can be misleading. Take the deceptively simple issue of class size—widely interpreted as a key indicator of how much face-time students have with professors. Now, one of the central pillars of a Reed education is the senior thesis, during which a student spends many hours conferring with a professor one on one on a research project that lasts an entire academic year. That's a lot of face-time. The thing is, U.S. News does not count these projects as “classes,” so the senior thesis—the crowning achievement of every Reed graduate—simply disappears from the statistics, swallowed by a footnote.

The U.S. News rankings also do not measure many other crucial aspects of an undergraduate experience, such as the depth of scholarship, quality of the faculty, academic standards, financial aid, or campus diversity. In fact, many educators believe that the rankings actually discourage colleges from seeking a more diverse student body, because several key metrics favor students from wealthier, more mainstream backgrounds.

There is little doubt that Reed’s stand on the rankings comes with a price tag. Every year, thousands of promising high school seniors (and their parents) might cross Reed off their list if it doesn’t land in the top 50 or top 25. Nonetheless, Reed continues to believe that the U.S. News system is beyond repair and refuses to participate in what is essentially a statistical charade.

A Case in Point

Let’s take a closer look at Reed's standing in the U.S. News system. First, we'll see how Reed's rank has changed over the years; then we'll compare it to some other colleges.

REED: THEN AND NOW 1983 2013 2015
Mean fresh. SAT Verbal 680* 714 706
Mean fresh. SAT Math 630* 670 681
Acceptance rate 92% 36% 39%
Student/faculty ratio 11.85 10.29 9.77
Avg. class size 16.9 16.4 16.8
6-yr graduation rate 53% 74% 79%
% profs w PhD 74% 90% 93%
Avg. faculty salary $68,953* $89,311 $96,044
# alumni who gave 3,394 4,299 4,200
Endowment/student $53,943* $277,758 $384,851
Rank in U.S. News #9 #74 #93

[Source for Reed figures is the Reed College Office of Institutional Research, unless otherwise noted. SAT scores for 1983 were adjusted using tables provided by the College Board to compare historical scores with current ones. Faculty salaries for 1983 were obtained from Academe, July/August 1984, and adjusted for inflation using BLS calculator. Figure for alumni donations in 1983 was obtained from Reed College records. Figure for the market value of the endowment per student in 1983 was obtained from the Reed College Office of the Treasurer and adjusted for inflation using BLS calculator. Class size does not include the senior thesis.]

Since 1983, mean SAT scores for the entering class have climbed 6%. The acceptance rate has dropped from 92% to 39%. The graduation rate has jumped from 53% to 79%. The student-to-faculty ratio has improved; the proportion of professors with PhDs is up; faculty salaries have climbed; the number of alumni who gave money to Reed is greater; and the market value of the endowment per student has grown sevenfold. These are all important factors in the U.S. News equation, but Reed's rank has gone from number 9 to number 93.

How does Reed stack up against other colleges? Let's look at some of the figures U.S. News reported in its 2015 rankings, and compare Reed to the colleges that were ranked at #25, #50, and #75. 

How Reed Stacks Up
Average of Schools Ranked:
Factors in the U.S. News System Reed 25th 50th 75th
Percent classes with under 20 students 76% 70% 64% 68%
Student/faculty ratio 9.3 9.5 10.4 11.0
Six-year graduation rate 79% 86% 83% 79%
Freshmen in top 10% of high school class 53% 67% 48% 36%
Acceptance rate 35% 27% 55% 65%
Peer Assessment Score 3.7 3.9 3.5 3.1
High school counselor assessment score 4.3 4.2 4.0 3.6
SAT 25th percentile 1280 1243 1191 1084
SAT 75th percentile 1470 1428 1364 1299
Alumni giving rate 31% 36% 28% 24%

Reed scores higher on every single one of these factors than colleges ranked #75; on most of these factors than colleges ranked #50; and it rivals colleges ranked #25. Admittedly, these factors are just a subset of the factors used by U.S. News in its mysterious formula. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something is deeply wrong with the U.S. News system.

Better Alternatives

Reed is committed to sharing accurate, reliable information with prospective students and the general public. We also recognize the usefulness of independent guides in helping prospective students identify potential colleges. For that reason, Reed does provide information to several college guides—including ones by Barron’s, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Peterson’sColleges That Change Lives, and the Princeton Review—because we believe they do a better job of describing the experience, student culture, and academic environment that Reed provides. And, yes, we occasionally repost news items ranking us as #7 on the list of nerdiest colleges or #17 on the list of outdoorsy colleges—after all, we enjoy wacky lists as much as anyone.

Fundamentally, however, Reed continues to stand apart from ephemeral trends, resisting pressures to abandon its core principles and its unrelenting focus on intellectual exploration. We believe in the intrinsic value of the pursuit of knowledge—not just because it expands the frontier of human understanding, but also because knowledge transforms the mind that seeks it. As former president Colin Diver once wrote: “Reed is a paradigmatic example of a college committed—and committed solely—to the cultivation of a thirst for knowledge. Reed illustrates a relatively small, but robust, segment of higher education whose virtues may not always be celebrated by the popular press, but can still be found by those who truly seek them.”

Author: Chris Lydgate, editor of Reed magazine. Updated September 29, 2015.

For more data about Reed, visit institutional research

Read More

"U.S. News college rankings: Amid predictability, some major shifts," by Nick Anderson. Washington Post, 9 September 2014.

“Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings,” by John Tierney. The Atlantic, 10 September 2013.

“'Forbes' Boots 4 Colleges From Its Rankings” Inside Higher Ed, 25 July 2013.

“Can College Rankings Giant Keep Schools from Cheating?” by Lynn O’Shaughnessy. The College Solution, 6 February 2013.

“The College Rankings Racket,” by Joe Nocera. New York Times, 28 September 2012.

“Gaming the College Rankings,” by Richard Pérez-Peña and Daniel E. Slotnik. New York Times, 31 January 2012.

“The Order of Things,” by Malcolm Gladwell. The New Yorker, 14 February 2011.

“‘Manipulating,’ Er, Influencing ‘U.S. News,’” By Doug Lederman. Inside Higher Ed, 3 June 2009.

“Is There Life After Rankings?” by Colin Diver. The Atlantic, 1 November 2005.

“U.S. News’s Corrupt College Rankings,” by Robert L. Woodbury. College Advisor of New England, 2004.

“How To Make Your College No. 1 In U.S. News & World Report . . . And Lose Your Integrity In The Process,” by Robert Woodbury. Connection, New England Board of Higher Education, Spring 2003.

Report of the National Association for College Admission Counseling Ad Hoc Committee on U.S. News & World Report Rankings, September 2011.

“Yet Another Rankings Fabrication,” by Scott Jaschik. Inside Higher Ed, 2 January 2013.

“Debt, Jobs, Diversity and Who Gets In: A Survey of Admissions Directors” Inside Higher Ed, October 2012.

1 “Cheat Sheets: Colleges Inflate SATs And Graduation Rates In Popular Guidebooks --- Schools Say They Must Fib To U.S. News and Others To Compete Effectively --- Moody's Requires the Truth,” By Steve Stecklow. Wall Street Journal, 5 Apr 1995.