Penn was ranked #8 by US News & World Report — but what do rankings actually mean?

Every year between Labor Day and the early decision deadline, a dizzying array of college ranking lists are released across the internet.

Penn’s rankings fluctuate from year to year and across publications. However, Penn usually falls near the top, along with other Ivy League schools. But according to Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, rankings lists aren’t of utmost importance when picking a school.

“We try to put to put a frame of context around it, but that message doesn’t always get across,” Furda said. “And it’s something we live our lives in, too, so we can’t say it doesn’t matter.”

Furda said that the underlying information included in the rankings can help a prospective student, even if the rankings themselves don’t.

“It’s one thing to say if you’re not on a list, ’Oh, they don’t mean anything.’” Furda said. “You want to be on the list to be able to say, ’Use it carefully.’”

The methodology behind each list varies by publication. The formulas weigh certain factors differently, creating lists that sometimes vary wildly from one another.

U.S. News & World Report is the most popular college-ranking platform. 22.5 percent of their ranking is based on undergraduate academic reputation. The category takes into consideration “opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence,” a group that ranges from high school counselors to college professors.

The same value, 22.5 percent, is placed on graduation and retention rates. The rankings also consider factors such as student selectivity, faculty resources, financial resources, graduation rate and alumni donations. This year, Penn was ranked No. 8, tied with Duke University.

“The U.S. News & World Report are the kingpin of the ranking,” said Brian Taylor, director at Ivy Coach, a college admissions consulting firm. “It’s been part of the college process for so long that it’s engrained in students’ and parents’ heads.”

Taylor doesn’t foresee U.S. News World Report losing its audience or being usurped by another ranking system in the near future. However, other publications are establishing themselves with alternative ranking systems.

Washington Monthly also provides a list of college rankings that they describe as “the answer to U.S News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige”. They rank colleges by six categories, which are weighted equally and include “social mobility,” “service” and “net price of attendance for families below $75,000 income.”

Despite the differences in evaluative methods, there was little difference between the Washington Monthly and U.S. News & World Report rank of Penn. Washington Monthly lists them as the fifth best college in the nation.

College Factual, which ranked Penn at No. 3, also differs from U.S. News & World Report by not considering acceptance rates or opinion surveys. There is a disclaimer on their website in big black capital letters: “Rankings are misleading, including ours.”

Other rankings specifically rank colleges by financial value. The Economist calculated rankings purely by expected earnings compared to actual earnings (Penn ranked No. 15).

Forbes’ ranking system is “not interested in what gets a student into college.” A full 32.5 percent of their ranking is based on post-graduate success. Penn was No. 11 on their list this year. And Money’s list is based on the colleges that “deliver the most value,” with Penn coming in at No. 26.

Taylor emphasized that college rankings are especially important to international students, because they generally have less first-hand knowledge of American colleges than their local peers.

“When you can’t visit schools, when your only knowledge of the schools are these rankings, they have a whole lot of weight,” he said.


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