Denise S.
Gater

TheCenter Reports, 2001

The U.S.
News and World Report
magazine publication "America's Best
Colleges" contains the magazine's controversial annual rankings of
the country's best colleges and universities and has received
widespread attention since its inception about ten years ago.
Members of the higher education community continually debate the
methodology used by the magazine, question the data's accuracy, and
in general are skeptical of the merit and usefulness of these
rankings. Some institutions have refused to participate in U.S.
News'
annual survey and others have proposed various
alternatives to their rankings. Yet, the college rankings
publication remains very popular as each year that single issue
reportedly outsells any other issue of the magazine. In fact, U.S. News publishes a stand-alone book comprised of these
college rankings in addition to publishing the lucrative magazine
issue.

The U.S.
News
rankings appear to remain a popular source of information
for prospective students and parents as they pour over a myriad of
college guides and rankings in an effort to make informed decisions
about which college or university to attend. Within colleges and
universities, these rankings are often used for public relations
purposes and may be displayed on an institution's web site as well
as in various literature promoting the institution. In addition, as
accountability and performance indicators continue to be important
issues in higher education, some college and university
administrators, governing boards, and higher education groups have
used U.S. News and similar media rankings as measures of
quality for higher education institutions.

One of the
arguments commonly made by critics of the U.S News rankings
is that the rankings are not reliable because the measures and
methodology change from year to year. They make the point that it
does not make sense that an institution can be ranked number nine
one year and advance to number one the next, or vice versa. On the
other hand, U.S. News downplays the role of changes in
methodology as a factor in changes in a college's rank. They state
that while it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why changes happen,
a college's change in rank can likely be attributed to a change in
performance in relation to that of its peer
institutions.

A primary
research interest is in measuring
and improving university performance, as well as in identifying the
top public and private research universities in the country. TheCenter's Top American Research
Universities project offers an alternative to weighted rank
ordered listings such as those produced by U.S. News. This
project gives institutions a sense of where they fit into the
competitive marketplace of higher education by using reliable and
appropriate performance indicators and a clustering methodology to
evaluate the nation's top research universities.

As part of the
background for TheCenter's research we examined the
"America's Best Colleges" rankings over the past ten years to get a
sense of their changes in methodology and rankings from year to
year. The following tables are based upon a review of the rankings
during the period of 1991 through 2000.

Year by year,
the various measures and associated weightings used for the
rankings (1991 through 2000).

Year by year
narrative summary of changes in methodology, measures, and weights
(1992 through 2000).

The lists of
schools comprising the U.S. News "Top 50" or "Top 25" for
each year (1991 through 2000).

Comparison of
the U.S. News rankings each year for the group of
institutions included in TheCenter's Top Public Universities
(1991 through 2000).

Comparison of
the U.S. News rankings each year for the group of
institutions included in TheCenter's Top Private
Universities (1991 through 2000).

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Our purpose
here is not to analyze or debate the issues surrounding the
rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report or
similar rankings, but merely to provide historical background.
These materials were prepared to provide context for The Top American Research Universities,
published by TheCenter (July 2000), which gives an in-depth
presentation on rankings, characteristics of universities,
indicators of performance for research universities, as well as a
frame of reference for universities to better measure their quality
and achievement.

U.S. News: World Report's Methodology