In Defense of College Rankings

An education policy expert says rankings are valuable to students and parents.


Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., education policy think tank, has now become an advocate of college rankings, based on his recently published In Defense of College Rankings. Carey has been both a critic of the U.S. News college rankings and author of Washington Monthly's best community colleges rankings, which are based on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE).

Carey's defense article tackles a number of key questions about college rankings and critiques both U.S. News and the higher education community. Carey writes that:

External rankings take the power of self-definition away from the academy. This is particularly disconcerting when those rankings are aimed at consumers, who hold the financial fate of many institutions in their hands. In this way, rankings represent the harsh competitive discipline of the marketplace. Many people are deeply concerned about the negative influence of markets and consumerism on higher education and see rankings as the culprit. But this is a case of blaming the cart for the speed and momentum of the horse. While one can debate the pros and cons of students who increasingly see themselves as savvy consumers, rankings didn't cause that trend. They merely responded to it, filling a need that would have been met by someone, if not U.S. News.

Carey also addresses the question of how much responsibility U.S. News should bear if colleges try to boost their rankings through a series of student-unfriendly policy choices:

None whatsoever. Responsibility for institutional integrity lies with institutions, which is, one would hope, much to their preference. If you surrender responsibility for your choices, you eventually surrender your ability to make them. Yet when universities lie to U.S. News, rankings critics blame U.S. News, not the lying university. It's strange that higher education doesn't grant itself the honor of moral agency.