Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Colin Diver: Are The U.S. News Rankings Finally Going To Die?

New York Times Op-Ed:  Are the U.S. News College Rankings Finally Going to Die?, by Colin Diver (Former Dean, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Former President, Reed College; Author, Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It (Johns Hopkins University Press 2022) (more here):

Breaking Ranks 6Yale’s law school made the stunning announcement last week that it would no longer participate in the influential rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report. Given the outsize importance attributed to the rankings by prospective applicants and alumni, Yale’s decision sent shock waves through the legal profession, and indeed all of higher education. Yet the law schools at Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and Michigan [and Duke and Northwestern] quickly followed suit. Will the universities of which they are a part join the boycott? Will other colleges and professional schools do the same? Could this be the beginning of the end for college rankings?

I sure hope so.

Since their emergence in 1983, the U.S. News college rankings have grown into a huge juggernaut. They have withstood decades of withering criticism — from journalistsuniversity presidents and the U.S. secretary of education — that the methodology ignores the distinctive character of individual schools and drives institutions to abandon priorities and principles in favor of whatever tweaks will bump them up a notch or two.

U.S. News has shrugged off repeated demonstrations that its scoring system, which rests on unverified data, can be gamed. Columbia University submitted inflated statistics, and won itself second place in the 2022 “Best National Universities” list — just the latest and most visible example of this phenomenon.

Though nearly all professional educators disdain the rankings, only a few maverick schools before last week had dared to pull out. U.S. News effectively punished them by coming up with its own statistics to plug into the ranking formula. After Reed College (of which I was once president) pulled out in 1995, its ranking plummeted from the top to the bottom quartile. Columbia, under fire for its apparent reporting discrepancies, chose not to submit data for the latest ranking, and its position dropped to No. 18 from No. 2. ...

The deans are making a powerful claim that the formula used by U.S. News rewards wealth and privilege by subtly penalizing law schools that seek to provide access to the legal profession for people from less privileged backgrounds and help prepare their graduates for careers in public service.

Some observers have speculated that this explanation may conceal other motives, such as a desire to circumvent the Supreme Court’s expected decision outlawing racial preferences for admissions. Or that Harvard (No. 4) and Berkeley (No. 9) are simply dissatisfied with their current rankings, though that would hardly explain top-ranked Yale. The risks of being punished by U.S. News are so big, however, that I think we must take the deans at their word and therefore focus our attention on the merits of their objections, rather than speculate about their motives.

And the law school deans’ argument applies to undergraduate college rankings as well, for most of the same reasons. ...

Some educators say that U.S. News — for all its failings — is still the best available measure of institutional performance. But I hope many others will publicly acknowledge that the time has come to break the U.S. News habit.

(Hat Tip: Michael Talbert)

U.S. News coverage:


U.S. News Response to Boycott

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