In many ways, the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are an annual parlor game that makes irresistible reading for students, parents, alumni, educators and, of course, journalists. Who’s up a notch? Who’s down two?
Does it matter whether Princeton nosed out Harvard, or vice-versa, or they tied? The question answers itself.
Still, the fascination endures. Put it this way: How many insiders who were given advance access Monday to the rankings that were released at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday deleted that e-mail without even taking a peek?
But looking at the rankings over a longer course of time than the annual snapshot might, just possibly, show some trends that matter. Let’s acknowledge that methodology changes (there were some this year), fluctuations in data quality (some schools misreport their numbers, see here and here) and myriad other factors could cause ups and downs.
Even so, if a given school rises or sinks 10 or more spots in the course of a few years, that could illuminate a significant change in what is a highly competitive marketplace. Even if the rankings are mainly about perceptions, those perceptions do influence consumers.