Columbia University Drops From No. 2 to No. 18 in U.S. News Rankings

“I don’t think there’s any reason that a student going to a school that’s ranked 60 versus one ranked 50 is going to have a meaningful risk for their lives,” said Mushtaq Gunja, a former official in the Obama administration’s Education Department and a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents universities.

But students often apply to schools that they think will give them a leg up in life, enhancing their prospects for upward mobility, or at least for a satisfying career, solid earnings and the sense of accomplishment that comes with being educated.

The fixation with status that keeps the college rankings organizations — not just U.S. News but others like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Washington Monthly — in business may be overblown but it is not irrational, said Colin Diver, former president of Reed College, a rare school that does not participate in the rankings, and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, which does.

“It’s based on a not-irrational premise that you’re more likely not only to get jobs, but you’re more likely to get noticed, you’re more likely to have good connections,” he said. “You’ll have a pedigree, and in America, a little of that is conferred by family, but most of it is conferred by education.”

As for the schools themselves, he said, “They have a love-hate relationship with U.S. News. Publicly, they may be reluctant to say, ‘We love this ranking system, anti-intellectual as it is,’ but in fact, when your ranking goes up you tend to brag about it.”

Mr. Diver argued that schools were far too complex to be properly reduced to a single number, even taking into account the 17 criteria and subcriteria used by U.S. News, including reputation (20 percent); student selectivity (7 percent, of which SAT and ACT scores are weighted at 5 percent); and debt held by graduates (5 percent).

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