Vanderbilt statement on ‘U.S. News & World Report’ rankings methodology

Vanderbilt is stronger than at any time in its history: Our students and faculty are our most qualified ever. Our finances are remarkably sound, our fundraising is reaching new highs and our research enterprise is thriving. And the success of our graduates is perhaps the greatest testament to our university’s vibrancy and the life-enriching power of a Vanderbilt education.

In the U.S. News & World Report college rankings released Sept. 18, Vanderbilt again placed among the top 20 national universities, tying with Dartmouth for 18th. Last year, we tied with Brown for 13th. The change in our ranking is entirely due to changes in U.S. News’ methodology. Indeed, on the rankings criteria that stayed the same as in previous years, we maintained or improved our performance.

U.S News’ change in methodology has led to dramatic movement in the rankings overall, disadvantaging many private research universities while privileging large public institutions. To look at just a few examples, The University of Chicago fell from sixth to 12th. Dartmouth moved down six places. Berkeley and UCLA rose to tie for 15th after placing 20th last year, and UNC advanced seven places to 22nd. Some schools have seen quite dramatic declines: Wake Forest slid 18 places, Tulane 29. Washington University in St. Louis dropped out of the top 20, and NYU lost 10 places, moving to 35 from 25.

Specifically, U.S. News has made significant methodological changes that reduce the emphasis on metrics that measure faculty and student quality—and that increase the emphasis on social mobility, which is measured using incomplete and misleading data.

Measuring social mobility is an important consideration, to be sure, and Vanderbilt is profoundly committed to offering access to qualified students from all backgrounds. But it is deeply misleading for U.S. News to commingle this policy concern with measures of educational quality.

Among the new methodology’s many flaws, the following are most glaring:

  • Some of the rankings’ key measures of academic quality, where Vanderbilt has historically done well—such as faculty with the highest degrees attainable in their fields and the percentage of entering students who are in the top 10 percent of their high-school class—were eliminated, while others, including faculty resources, were assigned less weight. Previously, U.S. News eliminated student selectivity as a factor.
  • Criteria related to social mobility have been given more weight, such as the percentage of Pell students. Students from all backgrounds succeed at Vanderbilt at a higher rate than at many other institutions, but because Vanderbilt’s overall percentage of Pell and first-generation students is lower than at many state institutions, U.S. News’ metric for Vanderbilt is lower, affecting our ranking.
  • Data about earnings, indebtedness and first-generation students are being sourced for the first time from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. The scorecard only captures about one-third of Vanderbilt undergraduates—those who receive Pell grants or federal loans. In other words, U.S. News is not factoring in the two-thirds of our graduates who did not rely on federal funds when determining the value of a Vanderbilt education, resulting in a highly non-representative sample. To put it differently, the U.S. News ranking put no value on the career outcomes of any of our students not receiving federal aid. That is particularly ironic, considering that the main reason so few of our students rely on federally subsidized aid is because of the generous aid we provide through Opportunity Vanderbilt and other programs—a total of $366 million in 2022–23.
  • U.S. News is no longer including financial information about academic expenditures from Vanderbilt University Medical Center when calculating our score for expenditures per student, despite our sharing faculty, facilities and funds with VUMC and overseeing much of that at our cost. Because Vanderbilt and VUMC are separate legal entities, we report our finances separately to the federal government. We have challenged this decision with U.S. News in recent months, since VUMC makes such a significant contribution to our educational environment—and many of our peers factor in the expenditures of their medical centers—to no avail.

As a research university, we are particularly distressed at the lack of rigor and competence that has increasingly characterized U.S. News’ annual lists. This year’s changes come after several years of questionable decisions by U.S. News & World Report. Columbia University withdrew from participation in the rankings earlier this year in protest, as have several professional schools, including our own Law School. There was similar turmoil in the rankings of schools of medicine; some, such as Harvard Medical School, have withdrawn from participating in the rankings. At Vanderbilt, we are considering our next steps in light of this year’s developments.

In the future, we will share more of the data and metrics that we believe are the most pertinent to academic excellence and outstanding outcomes for our graduates.