U.S. News defends online college rankings amid harsh criticism

Morse and Brooks clarified the magazine’s selling point.

U.S. News hopes that the rankings will only be used as one tool and not the only basis for deciding which online programs to select,” the researchers wrote. “U.S. News is the first to say that rankings should not be used as the sole basis to choose a program and that they should be used as one tool in the college/program search process. We stress the need to look at many factors in addition to rankings like cost, programs offerings, etc.”

The magazine, which has published a national college ranking since 1983, included online college programs in a separate ranking this year, breaking the lists into sections: faculty and credentials, student engagement and assessment, and student services and technology.

Colleges that ranked highly in every category were included in an honor roll listing.

Challenged by WCET questioners who asked if colleges that made the magazine’s rankings were paying for leads generated by the U.S. News website, Morse and Brooks said simply that the magazine was a private company and would not release financial information or web statistics.

In a Jan. 10 blog post, Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, pointed out that of the 2,000 surveys it sent to colleges, U.S. News received less than half of them back.

The bachelor’s degree rankings had the most responses with 194, making the rankings appear less comprehensive than once thought.

“The small number of useful surveys speaks to the scattershot methodology used by U.S. News,” Poulin wrote. “We would have thought that they would have engaged experts to develop questions and then pilot test the survey on a sample of institutions.”

Morse and Brooks said they were “pleased with the response rate” and expect more participation from colleges and universities in 2013.

The researchers said they hope to incorporate student outcome data in next year’s rankings – student grades, dropout rates, and more – to complete a more comprehensive list of online colleges with proven academic track records.