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As colleges quit US News rankings, how do you pick a school?

March 7, 2023
By Jon Marcus

As colleges quit US News rankings, how do you pick a school?

The dean of Harvard Medical School was emphatic and unambiguous when he announced in January that it would end its participation in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“Rankings cannot meaningfully reflect the high aspirations for educational excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care that we strive to foster,” Dean George Daley wrote.

Harvard thereby became one of more than a dozen medical schools and more than 40 law schools ranked by U.S. News in the span of a few months that have said they will no longer provide information to the outlet, which has ranked colleges and graduate programs since 1983. They say the rankings formula discouraged them from admitting promising graduates of less-prestigious colleges who hadn’t performed as well on entrance tests as applicants from top schools, and that they were penalized in the rankings when their graduates chose careers in public service over more lucrative options. 

Beyond US News rankings: Find info on colleges, graduate schools and more.

But the exodus has also called attention to the lack of other easy-to-find, reliable information to help consumers make one of the most consequential and expensive investments in their lives.

Where can prospective applicants to not only law and medical schools but also undergraduate colleges and other graduate programs find the clear and independent facts they need to choose among them?

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On that question, higher education’s elite are more muted. Almost none of the institutions that withdrew from the rankings would respond to it.

“We would urge you to pose your question to independent experts elsewhere,” a Harvard Medical School spokesman wrote.

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Families, prospective students must read the fine print

The issue is compounded by the problem that the information higher education institutions provide about themselves to the public – their costs, postgraduate placement rates, whether credits will transfer and other important measures – has historically been, and in many cases still is, not accurate. But regulators have been slow to crack down on this, and colleges defend themselves by saying families can find the necessary caveats buried in the footnotes and fine print.

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Some graduate and professional programs say they are aware of, and trying to address, this problem. Many business schools have started streamlining the data they provide and have added a sort of seal of approval attesting that it’s true. And law school deans will meet March 1 to talk about how to deliver more and better information about their institutions.

“We all know that the data is out there. We want to make sure we get it to our students in the most useful ways,” said Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, who is heading up the conference in conjunction with her counterpart at Harvard.

There is already independently corroborated information about law and medical schools available from accrediting organizations, sometimes for a fee; in several cases it exists in part precisely because of previous scandals in which professional schools falsified their data. The federal government also offers consumer information about undergraduate universities and colleges, though it can be misleading if it’s not read closely.

Some of the most comprehensive centralized data that’s already available is about law schools, collected and provided by the American Bar Association, or ABA, which accredits 199 of the nation’s schools of law.

It includes information on application fees, acceptance rates, the GRE scores and diversity of accepted students, faculty race and gender, tuition and fees, estimated living expenses, scholarships and dropout and transfer rates, plus the proportion of graduates who pass the bar, how many have found work and whether it’s in jobs that require a law degree.

“If you’re a law school, you’re likely not going to lie to your accrediting agency. So there’s a great degree of confidence that the data the ABA has is accurate,” said Mike Spivey, founder of the Spivey Consulting Group, which works with both prospective applicants and law school admissions offices.

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Employment data given to the ABA must be certified personally by the dean and senior career services officer of every law school, and the ABA can order an audit if it spots red flags.

That’s in part a result of scandals in the 2010s, when some law schools, including at the University of Illinois and Villanova University, were found to have inflated grades and entrance-exam scores. As the job market for lawyers slumped, other law schools were sued by at least 15 of their own graduates for exaggerating placement rates. One alumna of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, for instance, alleged that the 80 percent of graduates the school reported had found jobs included one who was a convenience store clerk. But courts have generally ruled that students enroll in higher education at their own risk.

The Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, which accredits medical schools, also offers information about them in a resource it calls Medical School Admissions Requirements, or MSARs. Harvard’s dean, in his statement withdrawing from the rankings, referred people there.

The most detailed information in MSARs requires a $28 subscription and is collected from the scores and surveys of people who take the Medical College Admissions Test, which the AAMC administers. Users who pay the fee can compare up to 10 medical schools at a time, said Tami Levin, AAMC’s director of premedical and applicant resources.

“That’s how we’re different: We don’t have the schools provide the data to us; we provide it to them,” Levin said.

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But some observers point out that accreditors have flaws, too; several undergraduate accreditors have continued to accredit failing institutions with what the U.S. Department of Education’s office of the inspector general has found is inadequate oversight.

“I’d be skeptical of any approach that relies on accreditors to be the brokers of that information. I think they’re conflicted,” said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“I’m probably supposed to be arguing for smaller government,” Akers said, “but there is a role for bigger government in this space. It’s a travesty that we don’t have independent sources of information about this product.”

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For undergraduate colleges and universities, the U.S. Department of Education has a website called College Scorecard that reports students’ average annual costs, after discounts and financial aid, along with typical student loan debt, median earnings 10 years after enrollment and other information that can be compared among schools. The site had more than 2 million visits last year, according to the department.

Median earnings come from the IRS, as reported by employers and taxpayers; the rest of the data is supplied by institutions directly and not independently checked, and can be misleading. For example, a user would have to click on the fine print to learn that the graduation rate for four-year colleges shows the proportion of students who finish in eight years, not in four.

“The fact that we are reporting eight-year graduation data when colleges are advertising the programs as taking four years is outrageous,” said Brendan Williams, a financial aid expert at uAspire, which helps low-income students go to college. “To think consumers understand this is asking a lot.”

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Nor do colleges’ track records make advocates for students confident about the information they report themselves, whether to the government or directly to prospective students.

“Applicants often say, ‘Well, the admissions officer often told me this or that,’” said Spivey. He said consumers need to do the same independent vetting they would if they were buying a car. “I don’t necessarily believe everything the car salesman tells me.”

A General Accounting Office investigation in November found that 91 percent of colleges and universities misrepresented their expected cost of attendance, something Virginia Foxx, Republican leader of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, called “inexcusable and outright shameful.” Families “make one of the most critical financial decisions of their lives when they accept their financial aid offer,” said Foxx, who requested the investigation. “Schools should not hide the true cost of college from them.”

Many institutions also send out offers of financial aid that thwart families from comparing institutions.

“They don’t view students as consumers, and that’s one of the underlying issues,” said Williams. “When you talk to a college, they’ll say, ‘Don’t view it as a commodity.’ But students need to know how much this product is going to cost them before they make a decision. They deserve that.”

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Data about whether grads get jobs can be flawed

Information on the job placement of graduates – the second-most important reason students pick a university or college, after academic reputation, according to a survey of freshmen nationwide by an institute at UCLA – almost universally comes from email questionnaires of alumni, something universities sometimes fail to disclose or mention only in the small print.

On average, colleges hear from only slightly more than half of former students, a proportion euphemistically called the “knowledge rate.” So when a university says that 98 percent of its graduates are working or pursuing further education, it means 98 percent of the half from whom the alumni office heard back – a very different number.

With consumer information lacking, hard to find and sometimes wrong, there is a considerable amount of buyers’ remorse in higher education. Only a quarter of recent grads in another survey, by the educational publishing and technology company Cengage, said that, if they could do it again, they’d take the same educational path. More than four in 10 bachelor’s degree-holders under 45 did not agree that the benefits of their educations exceeded the costs, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve.

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Only around half of people with graduate degrees think they were worth the cost, according to a Gallup poll. Fewer than one out of four law and business students and fewer than one in three other master’s recipients think their graduate educations prepared them for the workforce.

That’s on the heels of a significant investment. The average amount of student loan debt owed by graduates of medical schools is $241,560; of law schools, $142,870, and of graduate business schools, $65,090, federal figures show.

Yet there continues to be less information about higher education than for other services and products people buy.

“In other marketplaces, people know to be skeptical,” said Akers. Higher education, on the other hand, “has been something that we talk about as if it’s some sort of magical transformational experience. The thought that we’d need to measure and assess the quality of education in this coldhearted financial way is inconsistent with the way we’ve thought of it historically. But that’s changing.”

As law schools meet to consider creating more transparency, the Graduate Management Admission Council is tightening its guidelines for how graduate business programs report information about themselves. Starting this month, those that comply with the new reporting standards will be able to show a badge that they are in compliance, though this isn’t mandatory and the information won’t be audited or vetted, the GMAC said.

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U.S. News has said it will continue ranking schools, whether they provide information to it or not. Still, for all of the attention given to the rankings, only 15 percent of freshmen in that UCLA survey said they relied on them to pick a college.

The rankings dust-up has at least provoked a conversation about how to help students pick a college or professional or graduate school, said William Hoye, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at the Duke University School of Law.

“I really hope there’s going to be a groundswell to think of new ways to capture information and data and new ways to help people make these very, very important decisions,” Hoye said.

Which schools are leaving US News rankings?

These are just a few of the universities that said recently they will no longer provide data for US News & World Report's medical and law school rankings, although the outlet said it will continue ranking the schools.