Explaining the U.S. News & World Report MLIS Rankings

This is a guest post from Morgan Adle, MLS. Morgan has written previously for HLS here and here.

U.S. News & World Report publishes rankings of graduate schools and programs, including the Best Library and Information Studies Programs. The six most popular graduate degree programs (business, education, engineering, law, medicine, and nursing) are ranked using “statistical data and expert assessment data.” For other graduate programs, including Library and Information Science, the rankings are purely based on peer assessment.

Graduate programs often highlight their ranking on their websites or in their promotional materials, and prospective students frequently rely on them when choosing programs to apply to. But what do the rankings really mean and how are they calculated? And even more importantly, how much stock should you put in them when choosing an MLIS program?

The Survey Methods

First, let’s break down how these rankings are even calculated. When looking at any survey results, it’s a good idea to review the methodology to see how the survey was conducted, the response rate, and who or what is represented. The Methodology section explains that the dean, director, and one senior faculty member from 55 ALA-Accredited programs (there are currently 66 ALA-Accredited programs) are sent a survey and asked “to rate the academic quality of MLS programs at other institutions on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding)” and if they aren’t familiar with a specific program, they can select “I don’t know.” These survey respondents also control specialty rankings by choosing 15 top programs for each specialization listed. For the current published rankings, 57% of these people responded to the survey.

Who are the Deans, Directors, and Senior Faculty?

Deans are heads of the colleges that house the library and information science program. These days, many MLIS programs coexist in increasingly interdisciplinary colleges or iSchools with other departments like information management, data science, human-computer interaction, journalism, and communications. The backgrounds of LIS deans are equally as diverse; at the top 10 schools, deans hold Ph.D.s in various disciplines, including computer science, engineering, communications, and education. 

Directors, sometimes called chairs, are full-time faculty members appointed to oversee the MLIS program. Directing an academic program is a form of service that faculty often do in addition to teaching and research. Faculty service can be difficult to define or quantify, but it often includes serving as the facilitator of a major event or conference or serving as the director of a program, committee, or task force for a fixed amount of time (usually 1-3 years). Compared to the diverse backgrounds of deans, directors almost always have academic and work experience in libraries and archives.

Definitions and policies vary from institution to institution, but senior faculty are usually tenured professors. Professors with tenure, which include both Associate Professors and (full) Professors, have been working and teaching in the field for at least 5-6 years and have made evident contributions to research and scholarship in their field. It isn’t clear how U.S. News & World Report chooses senior faculty to survey, but the title of senior faculty would not usually include adjunct instructors, lecturers whose main responsibility is teaching, and junior faculty who are usually tenure-track but haven’t made it to their tenure review yet (which usually happens in their 5th or 6th year).

The Rankings

Now that we know a bit more about deans, directors, and senior faculty, it’s easier to see why they are chosen to rank MLIS Programs. They have well-established research careers in LIS and have been teaching for at least a few years. But it’s also important to recognize that full-time faculty members have a major commitment to research and teaching in their specific area of expertise. Graduate programs, on the other hand, are largely run by program administrators, a program committee (made up of faculty, staff, and students), and student services. And given the wide range of careers and types of libraries MLIS curricula cover, it’s impossible to assume that the faculty filling out these surveys are familiar enough with all aspects of other MLIS programs to adequately rank them.

Realistically, respondents are more likely to choose the programs that they are familiar with; they may be familiar with the school they attended, schools they have worked at, specific faculty, research projects, articles and research papers, major grants, labs and centers, or notable events and conferences. This means that older, more established programs and those that are better at marketing themselves and sharing their achievements with others in the field may have an advantage in the rankings. It is also impossible to know what factors and information the respondents used to fill out the survey; for example, did deans and senior faculty with degrees and backgrounds in other disciplines consult someone more familiar with library and archive programs before completing their survey? 

And for anyone interested in a specific area of librarianship, the specialty rankings provide a closer look at well-known programs that offer archives and preservation, digital librarianship, health librarianship, information systems, school library media, or services for children and youth. However, these rankings are calculated separately from the list of Best Library and Information Studies Programs. So a program that stands out for, let’s say, having a really strong archives program may have been ranked highly by survey respondents, but does that program offer an equally exceptional experience to students interested in public libraries?

It’s also important to consider what data and whose voices are missing – students for one. These rankings don’t directly take into account how satisfied students are with their programs or other aspects that add value to the student experience and the degree like funding and scholarships, student organizations, special events, career resources, internship opportunities, etc. They also don’t include perspectives from alumni (how many graduates found jobs after graduation and how well prepared were they for their careers?) or employers (do hiring managers care which school your degree came from? And how do graduates from different programs compare?).

The Bottom Line

The landing page for top LIS programs includes a disclaimer that says, “The U.S. News rankings of library and information studies master’s programs are based solely on opinions of each program’s quality as rated by academic experts at peer institutions.” And while the survey respondents are well-qualified LIS faculty, the survey is an oversimplified measure of a complicated series of factors that go into being a great graduate program.

In my experience, prospective students tend to rely heavily on the U.S. News & World Report rankings when choosing a program, but the things they value don’t necessarily align with what these rankings measure. In my opinion, they are a good, but flawed, measure of a program’s well-publicized aspects (faculty achievements, research, events, labs and centers). To me, these rankings would be more relevant to Ph.D. students who want to attend a school that is well-known by peers, with faculty doing prominent research and winning grants and awards.

My advice to prospective students would be to use these rankings as just one of many different factors they consider when choosing which programs to apply to or attend. If you focus heavily on rankings, especially the top schools, you might miss out on learning about newly accredited programs, more affordable programs, smaller programs, or the 11 programs not even included in the list. I would recommend that anyone thinking about pursuing an MLIS also consider:

The student experience. Firsthand accounts and stories from students and alumni like HLS’s Interviews and Hack Your Program series.

Program features. Specializations, tuition & fees, scholarships, student support, student organizations, and career advising will vary from program to program.

Job placement data. Library Journal’s Placements and Salaries Survey 2021 provides salary data for recent alumni from 36 LIS programs.

How interdisciplinary do you want your program to be? Working with students in other majors and taking classes in areas like information management or human-computer interaction can be extremely valuable, but it can also be harder to find a sense of MLIS community in large colleges with multiple programs. Take a look at the larger college that an MLIS program lives in (it might be a STEM college, college of education, etc.) to see its mission and vision, its values and initiatives, and how committed it is to supporting the MLIS Program.

Commitments to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Is a program actively working to integrate and pursue values that are important to you or is it mostly just talk?

Morgan Adle received her MLS degree in 2015 and managed the MLIS Program at the University of Maryland for 4 years before stepping down in Summer 2022 to pursue her Ph.D. in Information Studies full-time. Her research interests include LIS curriculum, information literacy, and internet search behavior.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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