U.S. News Rankings Add Consideration of How Well Colleges Serve First-Generation Students

The rankings of the “best” colleges in America by U.S. News and World Report now take into account how well institutions serve first-generation students. Yet despite a few tweaks to how the magazine defines what makes a top college—iterations in methodology that have become routine—Princeton University is still the highest ranked (again), and there are few changes in the top 10 in the 2020 rankings, released Monday.

More variation can be found, however, on the many other sub-rankings that U.S. News includes in its college guide—it now has 50 different lists that it updates each year, such as “Best Value Schools,” “Most International Students” and “Best Undergraduate Business Programs.” New this year is a ranking of the “Top Performers on Social Mobility,” which looks at how well colleges serve students who receive federal Pell Grants, for which only the neediest students qualify.

University of California campuses dominated the top 10 of the new social mobility ranking among “national universities.” UC Riverside scored No. 1, followed by UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine in second and third. UC Merced placed seventh and UC Santa Barbara came up ninth.

This is the 35th year of the magazine’s ranking of colleges, which has become a powerful and controversial force shaping American higher education. Critics say that the rankings are overly reductionist and fuel an obsession by students and parents with prestige schools. Colleges that do well tout their status and some obsess about making changes to campus life in the hopes of moving up in the rankings. The magazine’s leaders, meanwhile, argue that they intend the list as objective consumer information that should be taken as one of many factors in choosing the right fit for a student.

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This year’s list comes out amid ongoing criminal trials in the Varsity Blues cases brought by federal prosecutors earlier this year, in which parents allegedly paid huge sums to get their kids into highly selective colleges by cheating on admissions tests or helping them pose as student athletes. The students and parents accused in the fraud ring were seeking admission to the most selective colleges in the country.

“What I really want to make clear is that we don’t include acceptance rate in our indicators,” said Anita Narayan, managing editor for education at U.S. News, in an interview with EdSurge. “We removed acceptance rate from our methodology last year, and before that, it was minimal. The U.S. News ‘Best Colleges’ rankings doesn’t include metrics that were impacted by the Varsity Blues scandal.”

She said the magazine added the list of colleges focused on social mobility this year because it can now get reliable data around Pell Grant recipients.

The graduation rate of first-generation students is now considered during analysis of the overall graduation rate in the rankings. The goal, Narayan said, is “to give more emphasis and give more credit to schools are doing more to help first-generation students,” adding that “we know that those are some of the students that face some of the biggest hurdles.”

While the rankings done by U.S. News were once novel, these days there is a crowded field of college rankings. In fact, while U.S. News is touting its list of social mobility rankings, the New York Times started a college ranking following a similar methodology a couple of years ago.

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So what makes U.S. News stand out these days?

Narayan says that the magazine’s goal is to measure the academic quality of institutions and that its data team works year-round to collect and verify the details it uses to rank colleges.

And soon, there may be so many lists that just about every college can claim some U.S. News accolade. Among the eight new rankings this year (other than the one on social mobility) are a ranking of colleges with the best study abroad programs and one of the schools with the best co-op or internship program.

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