Office of the President

U.S. News & World Report Rankings Fail to Recognize Excellence

September 18, 2023

Dear Oberlin community,

Across the nation, colleges and universities have struggled to effectively communicate our unparalleled purpose and the significant value we bring to graduates and therefore society. We have allowed ourselves to be assessed and defined — and in many cases, distracted and diverted — by third parties with entirely different values. For many years, we have held the belief that it is impossible to distill the excellence of any given college or university into one ranking, and this year’s U.S. News rankings illustrate this truth.

Today, U.S. News released its 2024 rankings of colleges and universities. This year the methodology changed significantly. Of the 204 National Liberal Arts Colleges ranked, 31% (63 out of 204) changed rank order by more than 10 positions. Oberlin is among that group. And 9% of the national liberal arts colleges changed rank order this year by more than 20 positions.

These radical movements in ranking positions are more indicative of how arbitrary the U.S. News rankings are rather than an indicator of a change in quality. Did any of these institutions’ “excellence” change that dramatically in one year? Of course not. The rankings’ methodology changed. What has always been true, and what has now been made clear by these methodological one-year movements, is the ranking system does not measure excellence.

Our U.S. system of higher education is defined by the vast array of unique institutions among its membership. This breadth allows students to find the best individual institutional fit for them. Yet, U.S. News and other rankings organizations encourage schools to move toward a generic center that meets no one’s needs. At Oberlin, our distinctiveness is crucial to our mission and yet the U.S. News rankings would encourage us to move away from that mission to pursue rankings position. The U.S. News & World Report rankings scheme purports to help families understand institutions. But in this effort, the rankings impose a story that is disconnected from an institution’s excellence and distinctive character.

For example, at Oberlin College and Conservatory our excellence manifests itself in our graduates, and the contributions they make in realms such as the arts, sciences, public service, music and notably, academia, where Obies go on in significant numbers and bring the world new discoveries, and prepare the next generation for lives of meaning. U.S. News added an emphasis on graduate earnings in its rankings this year. But this one data point misses the bigger picture when understanding the excellent outcomes of Oberlin graduates, who have gone on to earn more research doctorates than the graduates of any other baccalaureate college in the nation, and place Oberlin in the top three doctorate-producing baccalaureate colleges in the nation over the past five years.

Some metrics removed from methodology include the class size index, percent of faculty with terminal degree, HS class standing in the top 10%, average alumni giving, and percent of graduates with federal loans. This year’s methodology actively punishes the choices our graduates make to work in fields such as art and music, where money is not a top objective. It is these values within the Oberlin community that lead to Oberlin consistently being among the top producers of Fulbrights, and Oberlin faculty and graduates being well represented among Grammy winners, MacArthur “Genius” Fellows, and other markers of artistic and professional accomplishment.

These rankings subtly advance a vision of higher education as a singular short-term, individual transaction focused on money, rather than a tool for human development and an engine for societal growth and progress.

These rankings fail to sufficiently recognize the excellence of our faculty’s remarkable work, including their work with students. The rankings, for example, penalize an institution like Oberlin with world-class Conservatory faculty who both perform with the nation’s top ensembles and have critically-acclaimed solo careers, while teaching at Oberlin. Our faculty’s experience and devotion to teaching is a large part of why our students come to study at Oberlin, yet U.S. News penalizes us for those faculty who hold even, say, a 0.8 full-time-equivalent position, considering them “part time.”

Higher education should no longer allow U.S. News rankings to influence the narrative about college quality and excellence in the United States. We will continue to evaluate what this means for Oberlin’s future participation in the rankings. Moving forward, U.S. News rankings will certainly not drive Oberlin’s thinking about how to provide an exceptional academic and musical experience that prepares our students to transform the world for good.

Carmen Twillie Ambar