Tomorrow, U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of the “Best Colleges” in the United States will go live. Cue the annual freak out.
Every year, right after the nearly unchanging rankings are released, critics across the country condemn the list. And rightfully so. The problems are obvious. “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge its students,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2011. “So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”
The largest single factor in the U.S. News algorithm is the ludicrously subjective “academic reputation.” Even the supposedly “objective” variables in the algorithm, such as graduation rates or SAT scores, can be fudged by duplicitous college administrators. (The most recent episode of fraud was at the esteemed Claremont McKenna, though scores of colleges have been caught dishonestly reporting data over the last several decades.) Indeed, the national obsession that follows these rankings gives administrators a reason not only to lie, but also to target absurdly large amounts of students — most of whom the college will then reject — all in an effort to raise yield rates.
In this way, the rankings are beyond misleading; they can actually cause colleges to behave dishonestly and milk additional labor (and an application fee) out of kids the college never wanted in the first place. Some law schools, hoping to raise their place on the list of top law schools, have actually altered their admittance practices, taking more part-time students and fewer full-time students, in an effort to boost their reported GPAs and LSAT scores — which can come only from full-time students.
These rankings — and their problems — seem inevitable because we, as a nation, are so consumed by them. But there’s a simple way to destroy the hold these rankings have on us. And Yale could do it. Easily.
If Yale simply stopped cooperating with U.S. News, it would monumentally screw the magazine. The rankings rely not just on reputational surveys sent out to college and high school administrators, but also on data that can be obtained only from the schools themselves — average faculty salary, percentage of professors with the highest degree in their fields, how many students were in the top ten percent of their high school class, alumni giving rate and on and on. One reason some colleges have falsified their numbers is that U.S. News cannot independently verify them.
If Yale refused to participate, it would put an invisible but indelible asterisk next to the rankings of each of the top schools. (Harvard or Stanford or Princeton could do the same thing.) Yale’s abdication could profoundly cripple these rankings. It could help stigmatize them and demonstrate to the world just how subjective and, sometimes, how harmful we know them to be. Without Yale’s data, Yale’s “true” ranking would be a constant (and presumably well-publicized) mystery. This, in turn, would affect all of the other rankings, since Yale is consistently among the top three. The rankings would be forever tarred with their true colors.
Would this hurt Yale in any way? Well, in 1995, Reed College became the first college to refuse to participate with U.S. News (even though it had consistently been one of the list’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges). U.S. News retaliated, capriciously inserting the lowest possible numbers into each of Reed’s missing slots, which caused Reed to drop almost to the bottom of the list. Critics predicted that Reed would lose applicants by the boatload, but instead the number of applicants jumped.
Other colleges toyed with following Reed. St. John’s and Alma College, two other liberal arts institutions, joined the boycott, and even the mighty Stanford — pushed by a forward-thinking senior administrator — decided to stop filling out the subjective peer-ranking survey.
But Stanford never stopped sending U.S. News the crucial university-specific data, and after a few years it started filling out the survey once again. Stanford’s brief experiment demonstrates that it will be hard for top-rated colleges to stop providing the data that allow them to remain at the top. They are simply scared of facing retaliation from high school seniors. Reed’s experiment demonstrates that this fear is largely unfounded.
As Colin Diver, then president of Reed College, wrote in The Atlantic in 2005, ten years after Reed stopped providing data, “Before I came to Reed, I thought I understood two things about college rankings: that they were terrible, and that they were irresistible. I have since learned that I was wrong about one of them.”
When you see these rankings tomorrow, roll your eyes. And hope that the Yale administration can break its addiction to seeing its name at the top.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.