The Birth of the College Rankings

How "Best Colleges" became the top source for information on higher education.

The campus of (No. 2) Harvard University, as shot for the first U.S. News college rankings in 1983.

The campus of Harvard University, as shot for the first U.S. News college rankings in 1983.

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When U.S. News started the college and university rankings 25 years ago, no one imagined that these lists would become what some consider to be the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education, important enough to be the subject of doctoral dissertations, academic papers and conferences, endless debate, and constant media coverage. What began with little fanfare has spawned imitation college rankings in at least 21 countries, including Canada, China, Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Taiwan.

Today, it's hard to imagine there ever was a void of information to help people make direct comparisons between colleges, but such was the case in 1983 when we first ventured into the field. The editors back then, led by Marvin L. Stone, thought the project was worth attempting because a college education is one of the most important—and most costly—investments that people ever make. (Of course, that perspective is even more relevant today when the price of an undergraduate education at some private universities hovers in the $200,000 range.) So the magazine designed a survey and sent it out to 1,308 college presidents to get their opinions of which schools offered the best education. The winners: Stanford (National Universities) and Amherst (National Liberal Arts Colleges).

That academic-reputation-only method was repeated in 1985 and 1987. In 1988, we started to use statistical data as part of the ranking methodology, evaluating those numbers along with the results of the survey. In 1997, in another pioneering step, the America's Best Colleges rankings made the leap online at usnews.com. The online version, viewed by millions, has substantially more information and extended rankings than there is room for in the magazine.

Of course, we've changed the ranking formula over the years to reflect changes in the world of higher education. In general, the biggest shift has been the move toward evaluating colleges less by the quality of the students they attract (inputs) and more by the success the school has in graduating those students (outputs). We operate under the guiding principle that the methodology should be altered only if the change will better help our readers compare schools as they're making decisions about where to apply and enroll.

Higher ed's response. It helps to have this principle to focus on when the inevitable criticisms of the rankings and their influence arise. Chief among the criticisms is the idea that it is impossible to reduce the experience that any given college has to offer to a number on a list. A fair enough observation, but one that does little to help the student who will have to choose just one to attend. Another criticism of the rankings is that they often substitute as a sort of performance evaluation measure for the school and its employees. U.S. News is keenly aware that the higher education community is also a major audience and consumer of our rankings. We understand how seriously academics, administrators, and governing boards study and analyze our rankings and how they use them in various ways, including benchmarking, alumni fundraising, and advertising to attract students.

Based on the success of the college rankings, we decided to expand the process to other levels of education. The America's Best Graduate Schools rankings debuted in 1990 with annual listings of medical, engineering, law, business, and education schools.

Our newest education ranking is America's Best High Schools, first published in the fall of 2007. It identified the 100 best public schools out of more than 18,000 across the nation. Just as when we embarked on college rankings, setting up the process wasn't easy, but it's already proved to have enormous weight with our readers.

Data Research Director Robert J. Morse has helmed the education rankings since 1987.