U.S. News & World Report released on Monday the results of what it said was the most substantive overhaul of its 40-year-old college rankings empire.
At the top, there were few changes as Princeton remained the nation’s top-ranked university, followed by M.I.T., with Harvard and Stanford tied for third. Williams maintained its stature as the nation’s top liberal arts college, and Spelman College again led among historically Black institutions.
But more than a dozen public universities, many of them with relatively low profiles, climbed at least 50 spots in the rankings. Fresno State moved up 64 places, to No. 185, for instance, and Florida Atlantic ascended 53, to No. 209. Many other public institutions recorded smaller, if notable, gains, like Rutgers, which saw each of its three campuses rise by at least 15 places.
They benefited from an algorithm that sent some private universities’ rankings plummeting but represented an effort to account for deals that higher education leaders routinely talk up, like transforming the lives of economically disadvantaged students.
The reworked formula assigned greater emphasis to graduation rates for students who received need-based Pell grants and retention. It also introduced metrics tied to first-generation college students and to whether recent graduates were earning more than people who had completed only high school.
The most seismic changes involved schools that were not at the extreme ends of the previous rankings, since they were not extraordinarily weak or strong across a sweeping array of criteria. Occupying the ranking’s middle rungs meant that shifts in methodology, like the removal of alumni giving as a criterion, could easily fuel dramatic rises and falls.
It was unclear, however, how much the overhaul would reduce criticism of U.S. News. Schools have said that the rankings have an outsize influence on students and parents, who use them as a proxy for prestige. And critics say they can skew the priorities of colleges and how they admit students.
L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, said the refreshed methodology was “slightly better.” The liberal arts school said in February that it would stop submitting information to U.S. News.
“It doesn’t ease my concerns, which is why we haven’t rejoined,” said Ms. Richardson, whose institution fell two spots, to No. 29, among liberal arts colleges. “But certainly I’m thrilled that they’re starting to listen to what higher ed leaders have been saying to them.”
Even if some public universities like Fresno State benefited this year, many university leaders recoil at the idea of ranking colleges as if educations are mass-produced consumer products. Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, complained in a 2021 opinion piece in The Washington Post that “the rankings game is a bit of mishegoss — a slightly daft obsession that does harm when colleges, parents or students take it too seriously.”
Anointing any one university as “best,” he added, was “bizarre.”
But universities that soared welcomed their new rankings nevertheless. Antonio D. Tillis, chancellor of the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said that officials were “ecstatic” and that the rise “reflects an intentional dedication to access and affordability, student success, academic excellence and constituency engagement.”
U.S. News relies on proprietary formulas for its far-reaching, for-profit rankings business, which scores everything from mutual funds to pediatric gastroenterology services. The publisher’s college rankings are widely seen as America’s most influential, and administrators, however philosophically hostile they might be to rankings, often embrace them as marketing tools. For the most part, even universities whose law or medical schools vowed in recent months to stop sharing information with U.S. News contributed data about their undergraduate programs.
Eric J. Gertler, U.S. News’s executive chairman, emphatically denied that the publisher had made any adjustments in its formula to try to retain the support of universities. U.S. News had said it would rank schools whether they provided information or not.
The company discarded five factors that often favored wealthy colleges and together made up 18 percent of a school’s score, including undergraduate class sizes, alumni giving rates and high school class standing.
This year’s formula, which relied more on data sources beyond submissions by schools, also gave less weight to overall graduation rates and financial resources per student, which examines how much, on average, a university spends per student on costs like instruction and research.
Private universities proved particularly vulnerable to the new formula. Small class size, which was 8 percent of a score a year ago, is a matter of pride for many elite institutions. Its disappearance from the algorithm played a role in some top schools’ rankings tumbling.
The University of Chicago, No. 6 last year, moved down to No. 12. Dartmouth declined six places to finish at No. 18. Washington University in St. Louis, which was No. 15 last year, slipped to 24th. Brandeis, now ranked 60th, fell 16 spots, almost as much as Wake Forest, which declined 18 spots to tie for No. 47. Tulane went to No. 73 from No. 44.
Michael A. Fitts, Tulane’s president, said he was “shocked” by his university’s drop, which he attributed to “a radically different methodology” that undercuts schools like his. Large, public universities, he argued, were better suited to meet the abruptly introduced ambitions of the U.S. News rankings, but he said that the caliber of a place like Tulane had not ebbed overnight.
“Do they have the best of both worlds now or the worst of all worlds now?” he asked, referring to U.S. News. “Are they conflating different criteria by looking at, in essence, your ability to enroll a broad, large class of students? Or are you looking at sort of the academic quality of the students while they’re there?”
To the irritation of many administrators, U.S. News retained, with equal weight as last year, a survey of presidents, provosts and deans, who are asked to consider the academic caliber of other institutions. Critics have long asserted that the survey, which accounts for 20 percent of a school’s score, introduces a decidedly subjective element to the system.
Mr. Gertler noted that the survey’s importance had declined over the rankings’ history, but he defended its continued inclusion since “reputation matters in society.”
Some of the country’s best-known universities saw their fortunes improve. Columbia, which was No. 2 before it dipped to No. 18 after it acknowledged a history of submitting inaccurate data, clawed back to No. 12. The University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, tied as the nation’s top public schools after they jumped five places each to No. 15.
In Florida, New College, the target of an ideological and administrative overhaul championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, plunged 24 places to tie for 100th among liberal arts schools.
The college, like many others that saw significant declines in the rankings, did not respond to a request for comment. Chicago, the only institution to fall out of the Top 10, issued a statement that faulted the methodology change for its drop.
“We believe in and remain committed to academics and the fundamentals that have long defined the UChicago experience — such as our smaller class size and the educational level of instructors, considerations that were eliminated from this year’s U.S. News & World Report ranking metrics,” the university said.
Wake Forest voiced similar concerns.
“Wake Forest has never made decisions or determined university strategy based on chasing rankings such as those from U.S. News,” Susan R. Wente, the university president, said. “We do not intend to start now.”
U.S. News is accustomed to complaints. The publisher has given no signal, though, that it is interested in abandoning a system that brings in millions of eyeballs — and dollars.
Maia Coleman contributed reporting.