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Do You Trust US News College Rankings?

In a competitive marketplace every authoritative ranking system gets gamed. If the ranking system gets popular it begins to influence the market it measures:

On the third page of the 42-page document, Baylor states that its overarching goal is to enter the top tier of institutions, as determined by U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.

The U.S. News & World Report ranking system started out in 1983 as a survey of college presidents. Due to a rapid increase in authority, the rankings heavily favor private institutions, which are more aggressive at gaming the system. Some academic agencies even offering financial rewards to executives for successful gaming:

The Arizona Board of Regents approved a contract this year that will give Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, a $10,000 bonus if the institution’s U.S. News rank rises.

As the rankings get gamed, the only thing US News can do is keep changing their ranking methodology, and become more secretive with the calculations. But given the importance of the rankings significant effort goes into analyzing and decoding the methodology and effects. Even US News complains about their own influence:

“We didn’t ask for this job. We didn’t ask to be the arbiter of higher education. The job has fallen to us.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement is an alternative ranking system, but it has failed to reach a critical mass because colleges that gamed US News don’t want to participate, and some colleges that did bad in US News see little purpose to any of these ranking systems.

But ultimately, should a private institution control these influential rankings? A popular book titled College Unranked highlights the harmful effects of college ranking systems, dozens of college presidents have boycotted the US News rankings, and the secretary of education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education is recommending creating a similar public database to the one used by US News.

On September 25th Yale will host Beyond Ranking: Responding to the Call for Useful Information. How can something as important as education be reduced to a few meaningless numbers? How can students navigate the vast sea of educational options without some sort of ratings?


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