College Rankings

 If college rankings from other publications, such as Forbes to PayScale, are the Apocrypha, U.S. News is the Bible.

If college rankings from other publications, such as Forbes to PayScale, are the Apocrypha, U.S. News is the Bible.

In 2007, the U.S. News website received ten million views within the three days of its release of its college rankings. From this platform, U.S. News and its counterparts help construct conceptions of prestige and value in higher education that ultimately do more harm than good.

There is a wide range of choice to navigate within American higher education, and college rankings have become an overwhelmingly popular guide. Since 1983 U.S. News has been known for little else other than its college rankings; indeed, it is the magazine’s true focus. More than feeding public opinion on status in higher education, U.S. News has cultivated itself into becoming the opinion in higher education. If college rankings from other publications, such as Forbes to PayScale, are the Apocrypha, U.S. News is the Bible.

U.S. News itself has cited research that if a college moves one place in the ranking it will likely see a similar 1% shift in its number of applicants. The paper, from the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, notes that U.S. News rankings “have become so influential at least in part because U.S. News makes the information so simple. While earlier college guides had already provided useful information about schools, U.S. News did the work of aggregating the information into an easy-to-use ranking, making it more salient for prospective students.”

Yet the paper notes simultaneously “students tend to ignore the underlying details even though these details carry more information than the overall rank.”

This is where the trouble comes in. All of those questions about the purpose of a university education have been, for a shockingly huge number of people, swept under the rug. U.S. News’ methods of evaluation and, by extension, the magazine’s preferences have been adopted by millions of students and their handwringing parents.

The problem runs deeper, though, than simply depriving American families of a chance to indulge in the critical endeavor of deciding whether education ought to be for purely intellectual pursuits or for the more practical matters of obtaining a job. The U.S. News formula boils down the college experience into a set of generalizations of varying applicability to a college’s quality. The rest is as easy as addition.

For national universities and liberal arts colleges, U.S. News utilizes a set of weighted criteria: academic reputation (22.5%), student selectivity (12.5%), faculty resources (20%), graduation and retention rates (22.5%), financial resources (10%), alumni giving (5%), and graduation rate performance (7.5%). Already at face value, there appears a rather unsettling absence of any effort to measure the actual educational experience of current students at a college. High alumni giving may simply mean that students enjoyed the school at some point, and graduation rates are more a measure of a student body’s income background than it is of any particular kind of academic quality.

Then there’s the broader question of why alumni giving represents 5% of a student’s experience at a college, or, for that matter, why any of these percentages deserve to be. As it turns out, these numbers are hardly set in stone. U.S. News often tweaks their numbers, resulting in an arbitrary shuffling of the rankings. The big players are left largely untouched while the remainder of the country’s colleges experience fluctuations of their own.

What stands behind the numbers, though, in the form of data collection is even less illuminating as to why these qualities in these quantities constitute an accurate measure of a college’s worth. Academic reputation, one of the largest categories, is substantiated by the opinions of staff at other colleges and high school guidance counselors. Though faculty from different universities interact with each other within their discipline, there seems to be little contact beyond this as to provide a substantive and informed opinion on the state of the university two states over. For high school guidance counselors, the impression can only be more superfluous. Thus, the opinions asked to inform these college rankings are often informed by the rankings themselves. Herein lies the true harm of the entrenched U.S. News rankings: in acquiring such influence in higher education, U.S. News has managed to become a largely self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the cases where U.S. News is not inadvertently informing its own data, it has actively modified the behavior of our institutions of higher education. This isn’t always for the best. Claremont-McKenna College falsified SAT data to boost its ranking. Emory University submitted similarly inflated data to boost its standings in the rankings. George Washington University misrepresented the selectivity of its admissions. Villanova University knowingly reported inaccurate admissions statistics for its law school, as did University of Illinois Law. And there surely are those scandals that have yet to see the light of a press conference.

Then there are the still more surreptitious manipulations that are unlikely to make headlines. Rumors abound of universities underrating their competition in order to give themselves an edge. On the opposite end of the spectrum, school administration officials have been known send promotional material to peer institutions in sheepish attempts to persuade their peers to give them higher rankings. Some have even unabashedly asked their counterparts to remember them come rankings time.

Though U.S. News has incentivized institutions to improvise with data they entirely self-report, the harm doesn’t always come in the misrepresentation of data. In selecting the values of higher education, U.S. News has deleteriously influenced university culture.

“Financial resources,” at 10%, directly rewards schools that spend “generous” amounts on its students. “Faculty resources,” at 20%, is significantly determined by how high salaries are for professors. “Student selectivity,” at 12.5%, is simply a function of how many students an institution rejects.

And here lie the faults of the modern private university: near obsession with pouring millions into brand new facilities for students, hunting for celebrity professors with loosely termed teaching contracts, and baiting any and all students to apply so colleges can reject as many as possible while the ones who make it through bear the brunt increasing tuition.

In the near future, there’s no conceivable world in which the U.S. News rankings will cease to exist. Though it admonishes its readers not to take its word as sole judgment in deciding where to spend their four years, its influence has hardly wavered. It will likely continue in its role, despite the deep irony that calling something better might actually make it worse.