Dear Vanderbilt community:
Last week we expressed our deep disappointment about the misleading methodology used by U.S. News & World Report in its most recent “Best Colleges” rankings.
In our message, we focused on the fact that the new rankings eliminated important measures of academic excellence. These include: number of faculty who have attained the highest degrees in their fields, the percentage of entering students who are in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and average class size. Other factors that affect academic quality—such as resources available to faculty—were retained but assigned less weight.
These changes constitute an attack on the very notion of academic excellence. If a ranking scheme ostensibly concerned with academic quality is reducing its academic quality criteria, what, exactly, is it measuring?
We were not the only ones expressing outrage. As the president of the American Council on Education stated last week, “It is ludicrous on its face that an individual institution could rise or fall by dozens of spots on a college rankings list in a single year. But the U.S. News rankings released today are yet more evidence that rankings are not and never have been reliable indicators of quality.”
In releasing its rankings, U.S. News said it “placed a greater emphasis on social mobility and outcomes for graduating college students.” In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, U.S. News said, “outcome measures like postgraduation income and borrower debt are more important indicators of value than traditional measures of student success and educational quality.”
But in relying on grossly incomplete data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard—which tracks only students receiving federal aid—U.S. News not only fails to measure college access and outcomes fully and appropriately, but also might increase barriers to student access rather than lower them.
Providing access to students of all backgrounds is a core value for Vanderbilt. For our undergraduate students, that means that we admit students regardless of their ability to pay. And we go even further by being among a select group of colleges and universities in the nation that are “no-loan” schools. We are deeply proud of our institutional commitment to meet 100 percent of each admitted student’s demonstrated need without loans. This allows all of our students to access one of the world’s best undergraduate educations and to graduate debt-free.
Last year, Vanderbilt spent $366 million on financial aid, with $244 million going to undergraduates, much of it supported by philanthropy. Most of those undergraduate funds were provided through our Opportunity Vanderbilt financial aid and student access program, which enabled us to fully cover undergraduate tuition for nearly every family with an income of $150,000 or less. This means that families could send a student to Vanderbilt for less than what it would cost in-state residents to attend many of the nation’s top 20 state flagship universities. In all, 65 percent of our undergraduates across a range of family incomes receive some type of financial assistance.
Our efforts to increase access are paying off. The number of incoming Pell grant-eligible students—a standard measure of the proportion of a student body with lower family incomes—has increased from 14 percent of our incoming class in 2013 to 23 percent in 2023. Similarly, our percentage of first-generation students has increased from 6.1 percent of our incoming class in 2013 to 16.6 percent this year.
The U.S. News rankings ignore all of this, because their data don’t include students who receive aid directly from their universities rather than the federal government.
To see how this is misleading, consider how U.S. News measures student debt, one of its ranking factors. Say there are two colleges—College A and College B—with 1,000 students each. At College A, a single student has a federal loan of $12,000. With its current methodology, U.S. News would report College A as having $12,000 average student indebtedness. But across all 1,000 students, the average balance is actually just $12, and the typical loan balance is zero.
In contrast, suppose that at College B, each of the 1,000 students takes out a loan of $10,000. Here, the average indebtedness (and typical loan balance) is $10,000, which is also the value that would be reported by U.S. News. This gives the false impression that College B is more affordable.
These flaws are particularly galling because the College Scorecard does provide clarifying information about the percentage of students who take out federal loans. Indeed, the Scorecard adds the following helpful language: “At some schools where few students borrow federal loans, the typical undergraduate may leave school with $0 in debt.” But U.S. News ignores this vital information and instead gives the incorrect impression that at schools like Vanderbilt, students graduate thousands of dollars in debt, when the typical loan balance among Vanderbilt students is zero—again, due in large part to Opportunity Vanderbilt.
These misleading measures matter. For many years, researchers have pointed to the problem of “undermatching.” Undermatching occurs when high-achieving students from low-income and first-generation households never apply to selective schools like Vanderbilt because they don’t believe they can afford it. This deprives these students of a potentially transformational education, and it also deprives campus communities like ours that would benefit from the presence and contributions of these exceptional individuals.
The same flaw in U.S. News’ methodology applies to the rankings’ measure of career outcomes. The College Scorecard, given what it measures, only tracks about a third of our graduates. Consequently, U.S. News’ student outcomes ranking disregards two-thirds of our student body, simply because they receive their financial aid from Vanderbilt and not the federal government.
All college rankings are problematic. That’s why some argue that universities should ignore the annual rankings circus. But many students and families rely on rankings to navigate college choice, and this is where the latest U.S. News rankings really fail. By reducing its measures of academic quality and using biased data for affordability and career outcomes, U.S. News has delivered a misleading guide that is now even less reliable in helping families—particularly first-generation households and those with lower incomes—make one of the most important decisions of their lives.
U.S. News’ methodology also disregards decades of passionate work by Vanderbilt faculty, staff, alumni and donors who have worked hard to make the educational opportunities at Vanderbilt not only exceptional, but also accessible for anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
The annual ritual of the U.S. News rankings release might not end anytime soon. But universities can no longer in good conscience stay silent about it.
C. Cybele Raver