The U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) released their graduate program rankings for 2021, including “Best Sociology Programs,” this week. USNWR releases these rankings roughly every 3–4 years. Each time a new edition of the rankings comes out, there is quite a bit of chatter among academics.
One key topic — and rightfully so — always seems to be the methodology. “How appropriate is the five-point scale?” “What was the response rate this year?” “I wonder who chose to respond?” “Why didn’t X department move up after hiring scholars Y and Z?!”
The USNWR collected new data in the second half of 2020 and early 2021. They did not average the results with a prior year like they did nearly a decade ago. They sent surveys to 117 sociology departments, with a response rate of 46%.
We have less clarity on some of the other issues. I do not know who responded, although I would assume most of the responses came from the top half of programs. Moreover, I cannot tell you why X department did not move up after hiring scholars Y and Z. Maybe there is more lag time than you think. Maybe scholars Y and Z are not as good as you think. Maybe people just hate X department. Who knows?
Of course, it is natural to worry about these rankings. We cannot help but place importance on the shiny new numbers, even if we know the system has flaws.
In past years, sociologists have discussed and critiqued these rankings on orgtheory and scatterplot. Orgtheory even crowdsourced their own version of departmental rankings. Spoiler alert: there were few large differences compared to the USNWR rankings.
These rankings will generate a new round of discussion on those orgtheory, scatterplot, various message boards, and social media. Thus, I thought it would be a great time to shout my thoughts into the void.
What Has Changed Since 2017?
The U.S News and World Report last released new graduate program rankings in 2017. So maybe it makes sense to examine changes in the top 50 departments since then.
The results are a bit unsurprising. There was little movement in the top 20 rankings (note: cutoff is at Washington) between 2017 and 2021. Five departments moved three or more spots: Northwestern (up 3), Yale (up 4), Brown (up 4), UC Irvine (up 3), and Washington (down 3). I suppose the other “big” news here is breaking the four-way tie for first place, crowning UC Berkeley at the top on its own.
Outside of the top 20, however, there was more movement. Thirteen departments between ranks 21 and 50 moved five or more spots: Penn State (down 6), Minnesota (down 7), Notre Dame (up 6), UC San Diego (up 5), CU Boulder (up 8), Southern California (up 6), Boston University (up 6), Texas A&M (up 6), SUNY Albany (down 5), Iowa (down 5), SUNY Stony Brook (down 9), UC Riverside (up 8), and UConn (up 14). Additionally, Rice entered the rankings for the first time at 34.
Truthfully, there is probably a lot of noise here. I think some of these changes have high face validity (e.g., USC has continued to hire well, SUNY Stony Brook has not replaced some losses). Others (e.g., Minnesota and UConn) are much less clear to me.
What Has Changed Since 2006?
I think a better approach is to examine changes over a more extended period of time. I just happen to have the ranking from 2006 saved since I started graduate school in 2007. Note: I only have data for departments ranked in the top 65 in the 2006 list.
Now we find a bit more movement in the top 20. Thirteen departments moved three or more spots. The big winners in the top 20 over the past 15 years appear to be Harvard (up 6) and NYU (up 9). Wisconsin (down 6) and Indiana (down 5) have seen better days. Moreover, both Brown (up 7) and UC Irvine (up 7) joined the top 20 at the expense of Penn State (down 6) and Arizona (down 9).
Things get even more interesting outside of the top 20. Twenty departments between ranks 21 and 50 moved five or more spots. Clearly, other departments have been impressed by the programs at Notre Dame (up 23), CU Boulder (up 21), and Boston University (ranked outside the top 65 in 2006). Two departments dropped double-digit ranks: SUNY Albany (down 16) and UIUC (down 15).
What Does it Mean and Should We Care?
In general, I believe that we should not place too much stock in these rankings within our own departments. However, I do think there is some value in thinking about the longer-term trends shown in Figure 2.
My best guess is that we witness a Matthew effect in the short term and among most departments over the long term. However, I think large changes over the long term are meaningful.
Major downturns seem to reflect some combination of (a) state budget cuts, (b) general hostile political environments to higher education, and (c) other disinvestments at the institutional level. Conversely, big upward moves seem to reflect targeted investments in faculty hiring and graduate recruiting, based on my own knowledge of these departments.
The broader story suggests that the public/private divide may be the most important overall factor. Figure 2 shows that half of the positive moves greater than five ranks occurred at private institutions (Harvard, NYU, Brown, Notre Dame, USC, and Boston University) and half at public institutions (UC Irvine, CU Boulder, Texas A&M, Oregon, UConn, and UGA). However, nearly all of the negative moves greater than five ranks occurred at public institutions (Wisconsin, Penn State, Arizona, SUNY Albany, Iowa, SUNY Stony Brook, Florida State, UC Riverside, and UIUC). Johns Hopkins is the lone private to fall more than five ranks between 2006 and 2021.
The USNWR rankings for graduate programs in sociology generally appear to reflect the zeitgeist of higher education funding and state political environments. There is room for individual departments to buck trends and/or get lucky, but resource constraints, particularly at public institutions, likely make that difficult.
Obviously, there is much subjectivity baked into these rankings and my own thoughts. I am interested in reading what others have to say on this topic.