College Rankings Can Be Good, But U.S. News' Miss the Mark
Colleges should be ranked, just not the way U.S. News does it
September 12, 2013
I like rankings. So do most Americans. Rankings provide a quick and easy way for normal, busy people to visually grasp the results of assessments that are often quite complex. We rely on rankings – Zagat for restaurants, Angie's List for contractors, Consumer Reports for just about everything else – to be our arbiters of quality and value because we don't have the time or ability to reliably suss out all the products and services in the marketplace on our own.
This is especially true of colleges. Higher education is the biggest investment many people will ever make, and often the most fateful. College is also what economists call an "experience good"– that is, a good or service whose quality isn't readily apparent until after you've consumed it. It's almost impossible to buy an experience good intelligently without some reliable third party assessment.
There are legitimate arguments against using rankings – are the metrics so precise that #24 on the list can really be said to be better than #25? But on balance, the inherent strengths of the format far outweigh the weaknesses.
So the question isn't "should we rank colleges?" but "are the rankings in question any good?" When it comes to U.S. News' college rankings I'm afraid the answer is "not very."
U.S. News mainly measures how rich, prestigious and exclusive colleges are. That's useful enough for students with high SAT scores and affluent parents – going to a pricey and highly selective school has its advantages. But it doesn't really tell the other 90 percent of students what they need to know – how much learning goes on in the classroom, say, or what they're likely to earn if they graduate – in part because such information isn't publicly available (which is how the schools like it).
Moreover, U.S. News' influence has been a baleful one for higher education. Many colleges have competed to rise on the U.S. News ranking by tightening their admissions standards – that is, abandoning the less affluent, less high-scoring students they used to educate in favor of a "better sort." And by giving higher scores to schools that spend more per pupil, the magazine has helped accelerate the insane rise in college costs.
Since 2005, the Washington Monthly has offered an alternative to U.S. News' college ranking. Instead of money, exclusivity, and prestige, we rank schools based on three "public interest" criteria: social mobility (how well schools recruit and graduate lower-income students), research (how much research they produce and how many of their graduates go on to earn Ph.D.s) and service (how many of their students give back to their country by joining the military, the Peace Corps etc.). And this year we offer a new "best bang for the buck" ranking of colleges that help nonwealthy students earn marketable degrees at affordable prices (President Obama says he wants the federal government to do something similar).
We think that the more students, citizens and policymakers pay attention to our rankings, the healthier our higher education sector will become.
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