What If the U.S. News College Rankings Went Bye-Bye?

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Ask Americans how they know which colleges and good and which ones aren’t so good and they’ll probably say, “the U.S. News college rankings.”

For several decades, the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report that focuses on the rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate schools has been treated with exceeding respect by the public. It purports to identify the best university, best liberal arts college, best law and medical schools and so on according to a complicated formula. Rarely do people analyze that formula and ask if it’s a reliable means of identifying schools where students are most likely to receive an excellent education.

Some schools are now pushing back against the US News system. The president of Sarah Lawrence College, for example, declined to give the U.S. News people the school’s data on student SAT scores. The president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD had the temerity to say that the attempt to measure and quantify educational excellence is “a bad way of talking about an education. [Students] aren’t shopping for a product.”

Opposition has even reached the point of a threatened boycott. A letter is now circulating among college presidents calling for college and university leaders to refuse to send U.S. News any information and also refrain from using its rankings to promote their schools.

Whether or not the boycott gains traction – and it might since many educational leaders have decried the “beauty pageant” of the U.S. News rankings – it’s time to ask if it would be any loss if the rankings went bye-bye.

The first and most important point to keep in mind is that the U.S. News ranking system has nothing whatsoever to do with measuring educational value added. If you think that the number one school (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton tend to rotate there) is number one because it’s known that students there improve the most in their academic knowledge and skills, think again.

The U.S. News system is overwhelmingly based on measurable inputs including financial resources, faculty attributes, and student selectivity. None of those, however, necessarily tells us anything about educational quality. Merely because a college enrolls a lot of students with very high SAT scores, for instance, does not ensure that the students will learn very much.

Proof of that came last year when the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) released a study entitled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship.” ISI commissioned a survey of 60 questions covering basic knowledge about American history, governmental institutions, and economics. The test was administered to more than 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities, ranging from the most prestigious to the least – if you believe the U.S. News rankings.

But which schools did the best at elevating their students’ knowledge in these important areas? The top four schools were Rhodes College, Colorado State, Calvin College, and Grove City College. The bottom four – all with seniors actually doing worse than the freshmen – were Brown University, Cornell, California-Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins.

A large part of the U.S. News rankings (25 percent) is based on academic reputation as perceived by leaders of comparable colleges and universities. I wonder how many of the people whose completely subjective opinions go into making up that part of the rankings would think that Rhodes College is better than Johns Hopkins or that Colorado State is better than Berkeley?

Students and parents don’t really learn anything from the U.S. News rankings. It’s entirely possible for a student to get a much better education – a sounder curriculum, more rigorous standards, and instruction by dedicated professors rather than teaching assistants – at a school that looks mediocre to U.S. News than at a much more prestigious (and costly) one.

About all the U.S. News system is good for is bragging rights among parents.

Unfortunately, these rankings aren’t just a silly diversion. They do real harm because educational officials try to manufacture prestige and good publicity by doing whatever it takes to “improve” their position. Some schools flood high school students with flyers and emails encouraging them to apply, even though they don’t fit the school’s academic profile. By rejecting a high percentage of applicants, a college improves its student selectivity. Others constantly push for across-the –board faculty pay increases because higher pay boosts your ranking.

The tail is wagging the dog here. If the boycott succeeds, causing U.S. News either to dramatically change or completely abandon its college rankings, that would be good.

George Leef is vice president for research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He has served as book review editor of The Freeman, an educational free market magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education, since 1997, and has published numerous articles in The Freeman, Reason, The Free Market, Cato Journal, The Detroit News, Independent Review, and Regulation.