Ranking the Rankings

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Within higher education circles, the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings are a little bit like junk food: Our appetite for them is insatiable, even though we’re not entirely sure they’re good for us.

Criticism of U.S. News’ rankings has been steady over the years, with one scholarly report calling the methodology “deeply flawed” and another pointing out that quality—that all-important criterion that rankings attempt to quantify—is always elusive:

Each ranking makes a subjective judgment on what to identify as “quality.” No one ranking system can legitimately claim to judge “America’s Best Colleges”; it can only claim to judge those colleges that are best at the criteria it chooses to measure.

Still, U.S. News remains the de facto leader in the rankings game, and every September anxious parents and high school seniors snap up the company’s annual guidebook ($11.95) to see how their school of choice stacks up, while university PR departments trumpet the results.

All that said, here’s how we did this year: UT-Austin came in at No. 52 in the nation and No. 16 among public universities. If you’re wondering how these results compare to previous years, we’ve gathered the data in a handy chart:

2015_USNews_Rankings

Note that the Top Public Schools ranking did not exist until 2008, which is why we can’t show a full decade of results for that category. An important caveat to this kind of year-over-year comparison is the fact that U.S. News tweaks its methodology every year—and in some years, as was the case in 2013, they make big changes.

Qualities like prestige and merit will always be intangible, and when you’re choosing where to spend $40,000 or four years of your life, that’s a scary thing. In an age when many people use Yelp to choose a restaurant and Consumer Reports to choose a car, rankings are comforting. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell said it best: “Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”

Illustration by Melissa Reese

 

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