But a growing group of college administrators is bucking the trend, saying the rankings are misleading and unhelpful to students who are looking for the best school to serve their needs, rather than merely the top school on a magazine-generated list.
In 2007, a group of 19 college presidents -- most from small liberal arts colleges -- signed a letter pledging to put all information provided to rankings publishers online for the public. Further, "[w]e commit not to mention U.S. News or similar rankings in any of our new publications, since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number," the presidents wrote in the letter.
The same year, a separate group of 12 college presidents wrote a letter imploring others to join them in renouncing the rankings system by refusing to participate in the peer assessment form and by not advertising their own ranking. Today, more than 70 college presidents have signed the letter, which was organized in part by the nonprofit Education Conservancy.
"[To] say that there's one best college ... is completely asinine. There's no such thing as one best college," Lloyd Thacker, director of the Education Conservancy, told AOL News. "Education is what you make of it, not where you go."
In the U.S. News and World Report rankings, peer assessments constitute 25 percent of a school's rank, which is also determined by factors like graduation rate and alumni giving. The peer review itself asks respondents to choose one of five boxes describing the school in question: distinguished, strong, adequate, marginal or don't know.
Hundreds of schools are listed on the form, leading many who fill it out to make cursory judgments. Daniel M. Fogel, president of the University of Vermont, estimated that if he spent two or three minutes considering each school on the list, it would take him 10 hours to fill out the form.
"When I'm being paid hundreds of dollars a day, why would I spend time reading up on South Dakota State [University] so I could give U.S. News a better answer?" he told Inside Higher Ed.
Ever since U.S. News and World Report began publishing its list in 1983, college rankings have taken on huge importance in the world of academia. Critics say that schools have poured resources into bettering their rank instead of focusing on cultivating a student body and academic environment that rewards intellectual curiosity and risk-taking.
At an educational forum last year in Atlanta, an institutional researcher from Clemson University in South Carolina explained how the school had systematically worked to increase its rank. For example, it reduced its small class sizes from 20 or 25 students to 18 or 19. But on the flip side, it increased bigger classes from 55 students to as many as 70. And the Clemson administrators who filled out peer assessment forms gave other schools poor reviews to give their own a jump in the standings.
"The more colleges rely on their rankings to determine their value, the less valuable they become," Thacker said. "Colleges are uniquely endowed not only to reflect culture but to shape culture."
One reason the rankings have persisted, Thacker said, is that they are easy tools for selling a school, as when a trustee talks about his college or university. Elie Mystal, an editor at Above The Law, wrote on True/Slant that graduate school rankings are really indicators of confidence levels -- both for professionals attending the schools and for their future employers and clients.
"Back in the days before U.S. News, employers and colleagues might have cared about where you went to school. But U.S. News allows clients and customers to judge you based on nothing more than where you got your degree," Mystal wrote.
The editors of U.S. News and World Report offer a warning on their website, telling students that "many other factors that cannot be measured also should figure in your decision, including the course offerings and culture of departments that interest you, the advising or mentoring you can expect to receive, and the location and campus life."
Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News and World Report, said that unlike small liberal arts schools, major universities are used to being ranked because they often compete for research dollars and doctoral students. He adds that the rankings provide a tool for students and parents as they navigate the complicated and expensive world of higher education.
"We're not doing the rankings for academics, we're doing them for college students," Morse told AOL News. "The public is not objecting to our rankings -- you don't see college students or parents rejecting analytical comparisons of schools."