The more that the reputations of colleges are affected by the ranking, despite other evidence to the contrary, the more the U.S. News rankings become college reputation.
That's one of the conclusions of U.S.News & World Report College Rankings: Modeling Institutional Effects on Organizational Reputation, an article published recently in the American Journal of Education. In it, Michael N. Bastedo of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Nicholas A. Bowman of the University of Notre Dame analyzed the U.S. News college rankings to determine their key effects and their impact on schools' peer assessment scores. Their article joins a rapidly expanding body of literature on college rankings and the effect the rankings have on colleges, universities, prospective students, and their parents.
Regarding the ramifications of the U.S. News America's Best Colleges rankings for colleges, the article notes:
The impact of rankings on reputation has other effects. Differences in rankings over time are vanishingly small and represent only minute differences in the measures of performance used by U.S. News. Yet even experts interpret these differences as significant differences in university reputation. Students, in turn, rely upon these rankings to make college choices, affecting primarily the admissions indicators that form the majority of the U.S. News ranking. ... Thus higher education becomes a winner-take-all market where marginal differences in performance lead to large differences in reputation and resources. When prestige is academic currency, the result is a 'positional arms race,' where colleges spend significant resources to attract students who differ only marginally on indicators of quality.
My take on this: College rankings have filled a real information void for consumers. It's true that the peer assessment ranking scores are relatively stable from one year to another; that has been proved by other academics in other papers. In our own published data and rankings, the schools with the highest peer scores tend to have the highest graduation and retention rates and strongest admission data and faculty and financial resources. It's vice-versa for schools with lower reputations. This proves that the peer scores are measuring far more than themselves, since they are reflective of the school's overall academic profile. It is true that peer reputation is a slow-moving factor both on the way up and way down; schools themselves say they change slowly. U.S. News believes that the peer assessment scores are measuring something valuable and help provide highly useful information about the relative merits of one college versus another.