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US News changed its college rankings. Should you use them in your school search?

U.S. News & World Report released its annual rankings list of the nation’s best colleges Monday, touting what the magazine hailed as “the most significant methodological change in the rankings’ history.”

After years of scrutiny over the findings, U.S. News said its latest rankings would be more equitable. Greater emphasis would be placed on social mobility and outcomes for graduating college students − aligning the magazine with the practices of other rankings lists.

Indeed, a good chunk of public state schools saw their numbers rise this year - some incrementally and others by a lot. Texas A&M University moved up 20 spots. Rutgers University in New Jersey got a boost, too, as did many of California's public colleges.

But those at the top of the list – schools that include some of the country’s wealthiest, most selective institutions – largely remained at or near their perches. Critics, pointing to the rigidness, denounced the changes as marginal.

Meanwhile, many college admissions experts rushed to remind students and parents of a longstanding truth in the admissions game: all college rankings, no matter how they’re calculated, are just one of a myriad of factors for families to take into account when considering schools.

“Rankings are someone’s opinion filtered through math,” Akil Bello, director of advocacy and advancement for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, told USA TODAY. “That’s all it is.”

In a statement to USA TODAY, Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News & World Report, called the new methodology adjustments “significant.” Measurements of student outcomes, including borrower debt and post-graduate earnings, were weighted higher in this year’s list, he said.

“These changes are part of the ongoing evolution to make sure our rankings capture what is most important for students as they compare colleges and select the school that is right for them,” he said.

Bello and some other admissions experts disputed that characterization. The majority of the methodology, in his view, remained intact.

“They’re not changing much,” he said. “They’re playing with numbers.”

Bad data: Columbia University admits to reporting inaccurate data for US News college rankings

Here's what's different in this year's rankings

On Sunday, U.S. News explained its new approach in a press release published on the magazine’s website. Robert Morse, U.S. News’ chief data strategist, and Eric Brooks, a principal data analyst, said the magazine dropped five longstanding factors, modified the weight of others and introduced new ones.

“We increased the emphasis on how often schools' students from all socioeconomic backgrounds earned degrees and took advantage of information on graduate outcomes that was not available until recently,” they wrote. “As in past years, changes in methodology, together with changes in individual schools' data, can result in significant changes to schools' rankings.”

In last year’s rankings, for example, donations from alumni were weighted at 3% in a university’s overall score – now that number is zero. Class size went from 8% to zero. Another change involves research: if professors are cited in major publications, that can boost a school’s score, too.

Brooke Hanson, a college admissions consultant and founder of the test prep website SuperTutorTV, acknowledged that schools at the top of the list didn’t move around much. But, she said, there was a subtle movement toward the middle of the pack.

“The real winners are state schools with large research departments, large class sizes, and low alumni giving,” she said.

Is there really a way to know? US News & World Report ranks America's 'best' colleges.

What prompted the change?

The shift in methodology comes as the higher education world has grown increasingly hostile toward college rankings. In February 2022, a math professor at Columbia University in New York leveled accusations that the school – which was tied for second place in the rankings at the time – had sent botched data to U.S. News.

After an internal review, the school admitted it misrepresented data about class sizes and the number of faculty with advanced degrees – both factors that U.S. News, in its latest rankings, scrapped. Though administrators apologized, they never explained exactly what happened. The ordeal raised fresh questions about the reliability of U.S. News’ list.

Then, in November 2022, Yale in Connecticut and Harvard University in Massachusetts announced their law schools would no longer participate in the magazine’s graduate school rankings. Heather Gerken, Yale’s law school dean, said at the time that the list stood “in the way of progress for legal education and the profession.” A wave of other schools followed suit. Those protests largely involved the graduate school rankings, though; the new methodology change applied to the undergraduate list, in which most schools continue to participate.

Rankings are just one factor to consider, experts say

Whether students and families care about rankings is open for debate. A poll out this month from the consulting firm Art & Science Group showed the majority of high school seniors, or 58%, “actively considered” rankings in their college search. The firm surveyed more than 2,000 high school students from May to July.

Yet students are not a monolith, said Anna Ivey, a college admissions consultant and former admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School. She doubts parents and applicants care as much about rankings as the colleges do themselves.

“It’s just not relevant, honestly, to most people,” she told USA TODAY.

Most students fret over different factors. They worry about cost, how close a school is to home or where they’ll live once they enroll, she said. Considering a school’s ranking might be useful, but families shouldn’t treat it as shorthand for a decision as important as where to go to college.

Instead, they should do their own research about the schools they’re considering, she said. Reach out to current students. Email professors. Visit campus. At the end of the day, according to Ivey, college rankings are trying to simplify a decision that doesn’t really lend itself to simplification.

“Treat it for what it is,” she said. “No less, no more.”

Zachary Schermele is a breaking news and education reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at zschermele@usatoday.com. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US News changed its college rankings. Should you care?