Nobody Likes the U.S. News College Rankings

Photo by denisvlr via Flickr

Like an internet slideshow or a Kardashian, the U.S. News and World Report college ranking list remains one of those stubbornly popular fixtures that everyone says they hate but no one ignores. U.S. News released the 2011-2012 rankings Wednesday, and the news is that there is no news: Harvard remains tied with Princeton for No. 1 among universities, and Williams beats out Amherst for the No. 1 and 2 spots among liberal arts colleges. (Massachusetts, for the win.)

Also unchanged is the chorus of critics that points out the many problem with the rankings. In 2009, The Atlantic called it a “national carpfest.
for indeed the backlash has become something of a tradition. St. John’s College President Christopher Nelson sums it up this year, telling The Washington Post today, “The rankings purport to do something that they can’t do well: to give an objective opinion on a single scale with a lot of data, on what is the single best college in the country.” As U.S. News‘s own FAQ page says, people shoot a lot of questions their way. Questions like, “Why rank colleges?” Other common critiques: they reward colleges for investing in fancy but educationally unhelpful facilities, thus driving up tuition costs; they drive schools to rig their statistics; the list goes on, and it’s trotted out every year. It doesn’t matter. As U.S. News‘s Bob Morse tells the Post: “We are getting record-high traffic, and interest in rankings is at its highest level ever.”

Clearly, efforts to convince kids to find a good fit and ignore the rankings have not diminished the extent to which everyone pays attention to them. There’s an inertia to these things. So every Harvard student can feel a little, unjustified burst of validation today that a whole bunch of people saw someone declare them the best. So too will parents who seek that burst of validation for their own college aspirant. How to address this? A few ideas:

More rankings! Yes, maybe we should give up on eliminating rankings and just join the party. The critique we see most often with U.S. News and World Report list is that it provides a single, quantified number to what is actually a very complex question. Some colleges are better than others at different things, and it’s the job of the applicant to decide which thing matters the most. Does it have a strong engineering program? What’s the culture like? Most importantly, is there a Quidditch team? We’ve actually seen an expansion in rankings over the years, and maybe this is a good way to drown out the dominant U.S. News list. Traffic-hungry Newsweek has long ranked colleges according to diverse measures like “happiness.” (Harvard comes in second.) Washington Monthly ranks them according to their service to the country. (Harvard is #12.) Each of the lists should probably be taken skeptically on its own. But college rankings don’t seem to be going away, so maybe the next best solution is to offer students and parents a flooded field so they can at least get a broad picture of which universities excel where.

Wait it out. Colleges are changing fast. As Chris Vogel writes in our current issue of the magazine, there have been huge strides in the quality of online education, and a lot of people suspect this is going to hugely disrupt our current model. With the changes likely to smack the higher education industry in the coming decades, everything about the status quo—including its ever-unchanging rankings—could be upset.

Ignore the rankings. Just because no one is following the advice doesn’t mean it’s invalid. There are plenty of ways that don’t involve looking at a list to help determine how rigorous an education you’ll get, how well-prepared your peers will be, and how much you’ll like a school. We’re sure plenty of people already know this, and they watch the rankings move like they watch the Kardashians keeping up with each other—with some amount of scrutiny. If that’s the case, then fine. Have your guilty pleasure. Not that you were asking anyone’s permission.