US News rankings are as inert as the Constitution

It’s application season — time for turkey, eggnog and a look at the academic rankings.

The US News and World Report rankings are low-hanging fruit for columnists. Countless writers have criticized the study for methodological skulduggery, over-reliance on manipulable criteria, favoring small schools and whatever else. Yet, I’ve seen students agonize over their school’s placement in the coming year, dreading further drops or praying for a rally. Just this week, I came to a realization.

We can all stop scrutinizing. No matter what happens at the actual schools, it’s very unlikely that the substantive rankings will ever meaningfully change.

Why? Because the US News rankings are very much like the Constitution and the Uniform Commercial Code. And anyone who saw that coming just earned my respect and sympathy in roughly equal measure.

What common thread binds the fundamental law of the United States, a uniform act that standardizes the law of commercial transactions and an arbitrary, over-used sorting matrix for largely incomparable academic institutions?

Each filled a yawning void in its time. Before each, the world was a vague and messy place. And what’s striking about all three documents is their resultant stability.

First, the Constitution. For a newly independent land with no central government, confederation meant stability, binding the states for their common defense and welfare. There was an obvious push to get something on the books and ratified rather quickly; virtually any document that accomplished the main objectives was decidedly better than nothing. The Articles of Confederation was a good first stab, but its weaknesses were many. In 1788 the Articles were supplanted by the more thorough U.S. Constitution — a document legendary in its stability. Of the roughly 10,000 amendments proposed since 1789, only 27 have been ratified, 10 of those in the first two years. A good chunk of constitutional jurisprudence these days involves convoluted intellectual acrobatics construing aged passages to allow or disallow some decidedly modern action.

The Constitution quickly became entrenched, relied upon, known. Interests have staked out positions on either side of its words. To fundamentally revise or even freshly interpret the text today would meet intense resistance: just imagine the Supreme Court actually ruling on whether the Second Amendment really does confer the right of individual citizens to keep and bear arms: an uphill battle in either direction.

I’ll spare readers the history of the UCC, but suffice to say that a similar process occurred. Before its adoption in the 1950s the law governing simple commercial transactions was a mess, often highly inconsistent between states. There was a very real benefit to a common and uniform standard, regardless of what that standard might be; So long as it was largely fair and achieved the goal of synthesizing the confusing pile of common law, it would be an improvement. Details could surely be ironed out later.

Except they couldn’t.

Since its adoption, attempts to revise the code have largely been frustrated. Parties rarely agree on revisions to the various rules; changes that benefit consumers are opposed by corporate interests, and vice versa. Although Article 2 revisions were finally proposed in 2003, only two states have moved to adopt them. Since the primary benefit of any uniform law is its uniformity, the system decays when states adopt revisions piecemeal. Once the first draft was out there, similarly uniform updates were just wishful thinking.

And that is precisely why school rankings won’t change much. By popularizing their hierarchy of colleges, law schools and whatever, US News captured people’s uncertain notions of academic reputation (once confined to a few “top” schools and a general sense of how local institutions might compare), added some rudimentary statistics and squeezed from it all an ordinate list. This list filled a void: It allowed people to affirm vague conceptions of “better than” and “worse than” and anchor them to a master document. The published ranking quickly supplanted the public opinion that hatched it and became the touchstone of academic quality. Today, the rankings are too widely used to change with the times.

Any substantial disruption of the rankings as we know them would be rejected as roundly as a major rewrite of the UCC. If the top schools were suddenly upset by a surge of also-rans, many would simply disown the US News list as rogue, and turn to another source that better reflected what we have come to accept.

The obvious message is to take the rankings with caution — at this point, they likely reflect stubborn inertia at least as much as meaningful quality.

But there is also a certain Frankenstein angle to all this — once unleashed, common standards take on a life of their own. So be careful, all ye Yalies who sully forth into positions of boundless power this year and beyond: when you tame the world with some hot new paradigm, think well on the first draft — your monster can be a nightmare to revise.

Michael Seringhaus is a first year student at Yale Law School. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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