Rethinking the Rankings

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine joins other top medical schools in withdrawing from U.S. News & World Report system

Published in Dome - Dome May/June 2023

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has once again ranked among the top research-oriented medical schools in the country according to U.S. News and World Report, taking second place for 2023-2024. But the news carries a critical footnote: After three decades, the medical school is withdrawing from the influential ranking system.

Once viewed as the national arbiter of medical school prestige and quality, the U.S. News School of Medicine (SOM) rankings have come under scrutiny recently as top medical schools question their methodology and accuracy, along with the priorities they promote. In a Jan. 28 letter announcing the decision to withdraw, Theodore DeWeese, interim dean of the medical faculty, said the rankings fall short in accounting for “the many factors that distinguish one medical school from another” and in adequately assessing the mission of Johns Hopkins to “enroll diverse, academically outstanding students with a demonstrated interest in becoming healers and leaders in medicine and biomedical science.”

Johns Hopkins joins an exodus of more than a dozen medical schools that have opted to stop submitting data to U.S. News, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Mount Sinai and the University of Pennsylvania.

Concerns over the ranking system are not new. In a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine article, Paul Rothman, Johns Hopkins dean of the medical faculty at the time, and Roy Ziegelstein, vice dean for education, along with colleagues from Harvard and Stanford, criticized the system’s overemphasis on standardized test scores and college grade point averages. In consequence, they argued, schools may be incentivized to focus much of their available scholarship aid on students who score highly on these measures, many of whom already have financial means. “That is highly relevant in a bad way for students, because it diverts aid away from people who might actually need it and benefit from it the most,” Ziegelstein says.

Ziegelstein, whose team has submitted the medical school’s data to U.S. News in years past, also notes that the rankings weigh research funding above other factors — a reality lost on much of the public, including some medical school applicants. “About 40% of the metrics track federally funded research activity, while the average person just thinks of these as the strongest medical schools in terms of educational quality,” he says.

The boycott by medical schools comes in the wake of a similar trend that emerged among top law schools late last year, with U.S. News ultimately vowing to revise its methodology.

Johns Hopkins already publicly shares data on its medical school, but Ziegelstein sees the need for broader conversations on which metrics are worth sharing — and how they should be shared. “Hopefully this brings about national discussion among medical schools about what metrics would better reflect education quality and allow applicants to find programs that best suit their needs,” he says, “whether that comes through U.S. News or somewhere else.”

In his letter to the community, DeWeese noted that the decision to withdraw applies only to medical school rankings, and not those for hospitals. “Although we will continue to assess the effectiveness of these rankings and to raise concerns and questions to U.S. News as needed, at this time, we intend to maintain participation in the hospital rankings,” the dean wrote.

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