How to Game the College Rankings

Northeastern University executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in higher education. Its recipe for success? A single-minded focus on just one list.
northeastern rankings

Photograph by Toan Trinh

In 1996, Richard Freeland looked across the sea of crumbling parking lots that was Northeastern University and saw an opportunity few others could. As the school’s new president, he had inherited a third-tier, blue-collar, commuter-based university whose defining campus feature was a collection of modest utilitarian buildings south of Huntington Avenue, with a sprinkling of newly planted trees.

The university had been a victim of many things, most notably federal cutbacks—rolled out in the mid-’80s—that had left many colleges scrambling for money to close their budget gaps. These cutbacks, combined with dwindling enrollment, had forced Northeastern’s previous president, Jack Curry, to slash the budget and cut 875 jobs in the early 1990s. When he announced the layoffs to his staff, Curry burst into tears. “To say it was an institution in turmoil would be an understatement,” says a vice provost from that time.

But Freeland, the man who had helped successfully launch UMass Boston over the previous two decades, had a plan. Freeland believed that if Northeastern could justify its increased costs to students and parents, it could be saved. And one gauge consistently determined a college’s value: its position on the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings. Freeland observed how schools ranked highly received increased visibility and prestige, stronger applicants, more alumni giving, and, most important, greater revenue potential. A low rank left a university scrambling for money. This single list, Freeland determined, had the power to make or break a school.

During his tenure, Curry had made improvements at Northeastern, but none of these changes could budge the school’s U.S. News ranking. Working with the mantra “Smaller but better,” Curry reduced class sizes and clamped down on admissions. He also tried to attract students from beyond Boston by creating a more welcoming campus, replacing some of the crumbling blacktops with new buildings, including a library and a recreation center. From the U.S. News perspective, these changes did little to influence the school’s reputation, the most statistically important metric in the ranking system. Curry left the school in 1996 at number 162.

Freeland swept into Northeastern with a brand-new mantra: recalibrate the school to climb up the ranks. “There’s no question that the system invites gaming,” Freeland tells me. “We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].” He directed university researchers to break the U.S. News code and replicate its formulas. He spoke about the rankings all the time—in hallways and at board meetings, illustrating his points with charts. He spent his days trying to figure out how to get the biggest bump up the charts for his buck. He worked the goal into the school’s strategic plan. “We had to get into the top 100,” Freeland says. “That was a life-or-death matter for Northeastern.”

 

Founded in the 1930s and 1940s by David Lawrence as two separate newsweeklies, U.S. News and World Report merged in 1948, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the publication printed its first cover story ranking America’s top 50 colleges. The issue happened to coincide with a sudden robust interest in higher education among the general population: Between 1970 and 1983, college enrollment increased 47 percent. What had once been considered a privilege for the wealthy or brilliant few was increasingly becoming the entry fee to the middle class. For the first time, a college degree was considered necessary, but how to choose among the thousands of institutions conferring degrees? Thus followed a new demand for unbiased, quantitative information—just as Consumer Reports rated washing machines, college rankings would serve as a first-time buyer’s guide to higher ed.

Along with the U.S. News list, the New York Times had just released Edward Fiske’s first Guide to Colleges, and in 1984, the College Board began regularly selling SAT prep books. But none had the authority of U.S. News. Billionaire publisher Mort Zuckerman seized the moment and purchased the magazine, along with its rankings franchise, in 1984.

In the offices of U.S. News & World Report in Washington, DC, Robert Morse has labored for decades, crunching numbers for college rankings (this year, they’ll be released on September 9). He spends his days staring at two computer monitors, analyzing the data that schools submitted over the summer. For a man whose life’s work triggers a yearly cage match among universities, Morse is far from intimidating. He slouches and shuffles, letting the plastic dry-cleaner clips on his shirt go unnoticed. Yet as chief data strategist and developer of U.S. News’s secret rankings sauce, Morse has helped the magazine become one of the most feared and influential voices in the world of higher education.

When the U.S. News editors first devised a formula that declared, with statistical accuracy, which school was on top, they quantified something previously thought to be intangible. For generations, colleges and universities had generally relied on a mysterious brew of prestige and reputation. Suddenly, legacies and tradition—qualities that had taken decades, and sometimes centuries, for schools to cultivate—were less important than cold, hard data. Schools that once relied on children of alumni and word of mouth were exposed by their own stats, including graduation and retention rates, admissions data (acceptance rate, average SAT score), academics (class size, number of full-time faculty), and reputation (peer reviews). Needless to say, U.S. News’s college rankings landed on the world of higher education with a thud.

With their authoritative tone, the rankings also introduced new possibilities. Before they appeared, it was doubtful that NU could ever rub shoulders with Boston College or Harvard. But now, with a codified system out there, nearly everything was reduced to numbers. And those numbers could be beat. “They give you a playing field on which you can play,” Freeland says of the rankings. They give schools “a way to compete.”

From the start, schools have argued that the rankings are subjective. Defenders of the rankings maintain that the system exposes students to more schools and helps the consumer compare products. Regardless, students, graduate schools, and employers have embraced the list, giving it unprecedented power. An unintended result, however, is that schools need to spend more to stay competitive in the categories that U.S. News considers important. Universities may be in the business of education, but it’s a competitive business in which all compete for students and revenue. With an arms race to the top, higher education has soared out of reach for an increasing number of Americans. NU tuition alone in 1989 was $9,500; today it’s $42,534.

“You can love us or hate us, but we’re not going away,” says U.S. News editor Brian Kelly. “University officials realized we’re much more valuable to them than not.” He deflects criticism, saying, “It’s not up to us to solve problems. We’re just putting data out there.” He does, however, admit that the rankings system can be gamed.