you can abuse
News and World Report has made its name among weeklies
as "news you can use," but is its annual college-rankings
issue a self-help feature or an academic beauty pageant?
SPOKE WITH ROBERT MORSE BY PHONE
so I don't know what he looks like. I imagine him of medium height,
skinny, maybe balding a bit, and a conservative dresser-the kind
of man who wears a tie on casual Fridays. He is brilliant (again,
I imagine) and well-respected by his coworkers, but they are utterly
confused by his work-the same obvious joke about "Morse code"
probably winds its way around the office every six months or so.
His awkward personal manner and subtle intelligence were so provoking
that the first thing I did after hanging up the phone was check
to see if he is a Chicago graduate.
not, but it would be another feather in our cap if he were. Robert
Morse may be one of the most powerful people you've never heard
is the director of data research at U.S. News and World Report,
the man behind the college rankings that appear every September
like Elvis Presley walking onstage at the Vegas Hilton. The special
issue has become ingrained in our national consciousness, its
cover blaring out from the newsstand with glittering rhinestone
phrases: "AMERICA'S BEST COLLEGES"; "ALL NEW EXCLUSIVE
RANKINGS"; "#1 BEST SELLER." Add a few stars and
some cartoon graphics of a faceless child (could be yours!) accepting
a diploma amidst massive Ionian columns and what you have, my
friend, is what has become known as the swimsuit issue of newsmagazines.
What parent could resist?
As well known as the yearly issue is the controversy surrounding
it. School administrators decry the rankings as a ridiculously
inaccurate measure of an institution's quality. Some, like Leon
Botstein, AB'67, president of Bard College, are moved to anger-fueled
hyperbole. "It is the most successful journalistic scam I
have seen in my entire adult lifetime," Botstein told the
New York Times recently. "A catastrophic fraud. Corrupt,
intellectually bankrupt and revolting."
critics cannot deny its sway over prospective students and their
parents. U.S. News sells 2.4 million copies of its college-rankings
issue annually-driving newsstand sales up 40 percent-and 700,000
copies of a companion guide to schools. According to a 1997 UCLA
study using data from more than 220,000 first-years, 41 percent
of students find the rankings to be somewhat or very important
in their college choice.
only is the special issue consistently one of U.S. News's
best-sellers, but it sells to the top students. The UCLA study
concluded that the U.S. News and other newsmagazine school
rankings are "a phenomenon of high-socioeconomic status,
high-achieving students" for whom a school's academic reputation
is a powerful influence, "more powerful than the advice of
professional advisors or the influence of families."
is the man primarily responsible for U.S. News's sway over
millions of future professionals, academics, and politicians-he
is referred to by his boss, special projects editor Peter Cary,
as "the brains of the operation, the heart and soul of the
engine." In 1989 Morse devised the magazine's first methodology
to judge schools on such points as SAT scores, selectivity, and
endowment income. He is still waiting to hear the end of it.
my assumptions about Morse's physical appearance and personal
style are unfair and inaccurate-ridiculous extrapolations on the
quality of his life based on tiny snapshots of information. But
essentially that is what U.S. News has been doing to colleges
and universities for almost two decades. Without setting foot
on a campus, its staff of number-crunchers amasses quantitative
data-currently in 16 categories-from 1,323 colleges and universities
nationwide. The magazine believes that the academic quality of
an institution can be measured by punching these numbers into
a computer, running an algorithm that assigns a predetermined
weight to each category, and watching the printer spit out the
results, the colleges stacked one atop another like the New
York Times best-seller list.
can almost imagine that it is about quality," says Ted O'Neill,
AM'70, dean of College admissions at Chicago, "but it's not.
These numbers can be bad or good and not say much about the kind
of education offered." O'Neill echoes the criticism most
often voiced by school administrators about the rankings: that
colleges and universities are not appliances or cars to be evaluated
in quantitative terms. Adds John W. Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, dean
of the College, "It's unfortunate that you get this hyper-commercialization
and hyper-consumerization of academic life whereby a college education
becomes the equivalent of an SUV."
News makes no bones about viewing education as a product and
students as customers-a distasteful metaphor to administrators,
but a metaphor not without merit. "The schools won't accept
the premise that we're providing a service that the marketplace
believes has value," says Morse, "and that our main
market for doing this is the consumer." Indeed, the 1996
issue states, "When consumers invest in simple household
appliances, this sort of information is freely available. We think
it should be similarly available for an educational investment
that can cost up to $120,000."
editors believe their intentions are pure: to rate the quality
of schools as a service to students. The UCLA study, however,
reinforces another common complaint: that the rankings underscore
how famous a school is rather than how good, reinforcing prestige
rather than measuring what is learned. "I am taking the U.S.
News people at their word that they are doing this to help
inform students," says Boyer. "But it translates within
seconds from quality to prestige." Prestige, from
the Latin praestigiae, meaning "a conjurer's tricks"-the
same root that gives us prestidigitation. A magician flutters
his wand, makes wide eyes at the audience, and pulls a Harvard
out of his hat.
U.S. NEWS RANKINGS began as a small cover story
in the November 28, 1983, issue (sandwiched between "A Robust
Recovery-How Long It Will Last" and "Bias Against Ugly
People-How They Can Fight It"). Two reporters sent surveys
to 1,308 four-year-college presidents asking them to name the
highest-quality undergraduate schools. About half the presidents
responded. The magazine tallied the votes, Stanford and Amherst
came out on top, and that was it. The issue sold well, but no
one foresaw the phenomenon-or the controversy-the rankings would
create. The article about ugly people received more letters of
the rankings proved popular enough for the editors to repeat the
task in 1985 and 1987, again to brisk newsstand sales. In 1988
they got serious, hiring former Newsweek education editor
Mel Elfin to develop it as a special issue for 1989. Elfin assigned
Robert Morse, a researcher for the magazine since 1976, to develop
a formula for measuring quality in an academic institution.
was actually the second statistician hired for the job-the first
left after her formula produced what Elfin calls "bizarre
anomalies," including a Hellenic seminary as the No. 1 school
because of the heavy weight assigned to spending per student.
(The seminary's library, Elfin recalls, was full of rare, handwritten
took over, crunched the numbers his way, and in the National Universities
category Yale surfaced as No. 1. Believing that the result justified
the methodology-a philosophy from which the rankings issue has
yet to escape-the editors ran with it. They have been running
seems to be in our blood, a biological urge to sport the giant
foam-rubber hand with the lone index finger stabbing skyward.
No step on the rankings ladder means anything more than its proximity
to the top spot. Even if a college lies at 27th next to its less-fortunate
competitor at 28th, the only important thing is that it is closer
to No. 1.
how do we determine what "No. 1" means? By what methodology
do we declare a champion? Billboard ranks albums according
to sales. Forbes ranks companies by total revenue. Consumer
Reports ranks toasters on common desirable indicators such
as price and life span. U.S. News, the criticism goes,
also uses such quantitative measurements, but what it purports
to measure-an institution's precise overall quality-is simply
beyond measurement. "At Chicago we've always thought in terms
of how one learns to become an intellectual being," says
O'Neill. "Nothing in U.S. News surveys even begins
to address this issue-nothing about how people learn, nothing
about what goes on in the classroom, nothing about the kind of
community that's created. So anything we think is valuable they
think is unmeasurable, therefore unimportant."
of this kind did not stop the rankings from growing in popularity
through the 1990s. Other magazines and newspapers, such as Money,
Newsweek, Time, and the Wall Street Journal
caught the bug and began rating colleges, graduate schools, and
professional schools. But none has captured as much attention
or achieved anywhere near the annual sales of U.S. News.
Although U.S. News won't release its figures, the UCLA
study estimates that the issue generates $5.2 million in sales
each year, approximately one-third of the sales of all newsmagazine
rankings issues-a figure that does not include advertising profits.
though criticism of the U.S. News rankings seemed to grow
in direct proportion to its sales, it was like the old joke about
the weather-everyone talked about it, but nobody did anything.
Not until 1995, that is, when Reed College stood up to U.S.
News, and U.S. News knocked the school down.
IS A SMALL,
1,200-student liberal arts college nestled in a neighborhood five
miles from downtown Portland, Oregon. Forty years ago Scientific
American described Reed-second only to Caltech in producing
future Ph.D.s-as "far and away more productive of future
scientists than any other institution in the U.S." In his
1996 book Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin), former
New York Times education editor Loren Pope named the school
"the most intellectual college in the country." In U.S.
News's 1983 rankings, Reed was tied for ninth among Best Liberal
Arts Colleges in the nation, and through 1994 it remained a first-
or second-tier institution.
1995, however, Reed found itself banished to the rankings wasteland-the
fourth tier where schools are listed alphabetically, placing it
somewhere between 122nd and 161st in the country, bordered on
one side by Nebraska Wesleyan University and on the other by Richard
Stockton College of New Jersey. Why the nosedive? It opted, quite
simply-and quite publicly-to retire from the beauty pageant.
president Steven Koblik decided to withdraw the school from the
rankings game after he read an April 5, 1995, Wall Street Journal
article noting widespread inaccuracies in college rankings. Reporter
Steve Stecklow had compared the information given by schools to
the Money and U.S. News rankings with similar statistics
colleges report to bond agencies and the NCAA. (While there are
no penalties for giving inaccurate data to a magazine, lying to
bond agencies violates federal securities laws, and lying to the
NCAA can also have serious repercussions.)
found numerous discrepancies between figures reported to bond
agencies and figures reported to magazines. New College of the
University of South Florida, for instance, boasted an impressive
average SAT score of 1296 in the 1994 Money college guide.
Its actual average score was about 40 points less. In what the
school's admissions director called part of a "marketing
strategy," it had neglected to include the bottom-scoring
6 percent of its student body when reporting to Money. Boston's
Northeastern University excluded international and remedial students-about
20 percent of its freshman class-in the numbers it reported to
the newsmagazines. Monmouth University in New Jersey overreported
its average SAT score by a whopping 200 points, a number the school
told Stecklow was fabricated by a former employee. Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in New York reportedly raised its selectivity
rate by counting as "rejects" students who were admitted
to programs other than those to which they had applied and students
who were waitlisted and later admitted.
it wasn't only the schools scrambling for a little limelight that
fudged the numbers. Boston University, hovering just outside the
Top 40 like a struggling rock band, reported its international
students' (traditionally high) math SAT scores, but not their
(traditionally low) verbal scores. New York University-a solid
Top 50 school trying to crack the Top 25-excluded about 100 economically
disadvantaged students in a state-sponsored program from its SAT
figures. Even Harvard, locked in an eternal catfight with Yale,
Stanford, and Princeton (and, depending on the methodology du
jour, Caltech, Duke, and MIT), demonstrated a 15-point difference
in reported SAT scores, a variance the admissions director called
schools that Stecklow accused of juggling data wrote the WSJ defending
the discrepancies as "transposed numbers," "typographical
errors," and even a "misinterpreted handwritten figure."
One dean told the WSJ that such practices were necessary
because the heavy emphasis placed on student selectivity was an
"abuse" by college guides: "
what you've got
to do as an admissions person is to juggle them in such a way
so the abuse is minimized."
REED WAS NOT ACCUSED
of any wrongdoing and had always performed well in the rankings,
Koblik-who had unsuccessfully lobbied U.S. News to make
changes the previous year-decided the revelation of number-juggling
was the last straw. So in a letter to alumni, prospective applicants,
and high-school guidance counselors, Koblik explained that Reed
would no longer return the forms sent by the magazine because
the project was "not credible."
also requested that the magazine drop Reed from its lists altogether.
When editors' pleas to reconsider went unanswered, U.S. News
had to obtain the information on its own. Allowing Reed to drop
out would open the floodgates for others to decamp as well. Smelling
their own blood in the water, the editors decided to use the most
scientific method at their disposal: they guessed.
is a kind way of putting it. For every category for which Reed
did not submit information, U.S. News assigned a point
value equal to the worst-performing school. This effectively put
Reed dead last in the rankings-even while "academic reputation,"
an indicator based on other schools' responses, showed Reed's
academic reputation as 18, two points higher than the previous
year and higher than half of the first-tier schools.
the same page U.S. News printed an additional list of the
Top 20 schools with "an unusually strong commitment to undergraduate
teaching," again determined by surveying school administrators.
Reed tied for 18th with Middlebury and Bates. Reed's obvious cachet
with the academic community did not keep the editors from dropping
it to the bottom for the sake of saving the overall rankings.
The ends, as Vincent Price once said, justified the meanness.
are penalties," says Chicago's O'Neill of taking a stand
against U.S. News. "We watched them make an example
out of Reed. No one else was willing to take that chance. It's
too bad-you'd think as educators we'd have more courage than that."
for Reed, the magazine's plan backfired. The school received wide
support in the press and from its students, faculty, alumni, and
trustees. Koblik became a hero among other schools where administrators
whispered around the water cooler how they wished they could do
that. Unable to defend its actions as truly in its readers' best
interest, U.S. News issued a silent mea culpa. The 1996
rankings found Reed at No. 37, and it has rested in the first
or second tier ever since. In 1997, then-U.S. News editor Al Sanoff
told Rolling Stone of the incident, "Let's just say
we did not handle it the right way."
it was too late. Sensing weakness, or perhaps just emboldened
by Reed's bravery, Stanford threw a combination punch in 1997
that sent U.S. News reeling. President Gerhard Casper was
joined by his provost and his dean of admissions in refusing to
submit academic reputation ratings, saying they were "extremely
skeptical that the quality of a university-any more than the quality
of a magazine-can be measured statistically." Instead Stanford
posted its statistical data on its Web site and encouraged other
schools to follow suit so prospective students could gather information
on their own. Stanford's call was answered by, among others, Clark
University in Massachusetts, Georgia Institute of Technology,
the University of Minnesota, and Bryn Mawr.
had been critical of the rankings since he served as provost of
Chicago from 1989 to 1992, but his decision to make a stand may
have been partly influenced by Nicholas Thompson, who as a Stanford
junior in 1996 founded FUNC-the Forget U.S. News Coalition-which
criticized Stanford for altering its policies to influence the
U.S. News rankings. Thompson targeted his criticism on
the Stanford Fund, a development program he briefly worked for.
He charged that the fund was created not to raise money but to
raise the percentage of alumni who donated, so Stanford's alumni
giving rate would go up in the rankings. (The alumni giving rate,
which counts for 5 percent of the overall score, calculates the
percentage of alumni who give rather than the amount of money
received.) Although increasing the alumni giving rate may not
be a bad thing in itself, Thompson felt his school was altering
policies to please an artificial rankings system. FUNC became
a national student organization spawning chapters across the country.
News could survive with a few less reputational surveys and
could gather its data at the Stanford Web site. But to have a
school of Stanford's stature back out of the rankings was a major
publicity blow. It didn't help that only two years later U.S.
News shot itself in the foot.
THE FALL OF 1999,
a perennial underdog emerged as champion in the bloody arena.
Caltech had teleported from ninth place in 1998 to big, fat Number
One. When the survey was published, rating all schools on a 1-100
point system-with 100 being the best school and the others rated
accordingly-Caltech was not just No. 1, but No. 1 by a massive
seven-point margin over No. 2 Harvard. The same spread had covered
the top 16 schools the previous year.
leap could be traced to a methodological adjustment that gave
more weight to the amount a school spends per student (the same
factor devalued in 1989 that gave Yale the top spot). An outside
statistician, Amy Graham, had been brought in to evaluate the
existing methodology. Graham determined that spending per student
was undervalued and made the adjustment. Caltech, with its massive
financial resources and small student body, spends $192,000 per
student, more than twice any other school.
editors were stunned by the results. "This just happened
to be the week I was given the job," says special projects
editor Cary. "The [previous editor] was heading out the door,
and he handed me this and said, 'Here, you're in charge.'"
With deadlines looming, the staff decided to go with what they
had. "There was never any consideration of redoing it,"
says Cary. "We felt like we make changes every year, and
there's always the chance that a school will move up or down the
list. We just do it and live with it."
Cary insists the methodology was justified, the editors knew Caltech
wouldn't fly as No. 1 in the public eye, and critics accurately
predicted that the next year the methodology would be readjusted
to put the big three back on top. This prejudice can be seen in
the rankings themselves-as Caltech was perched at No. 1 overall,
it was buried at No. 27 in its graduation and retention rank,
and it earned a "value-added" rating of -12. (Retention
records how many students graduate in six years, but the value-added
rating evaluates the quality of entering students based on their
test scores and estimates how many of them should graduate
within six years as compared to how many actually do. A
positive score means the school performed better than predicted,
and a negative score, worse. U.S. News developed the category
in 1996 to address complaints that none of its indicators measures
what actually happens at an institution.)
other schools consistently stand out as bad performers in the
graduation and retention and value-added categories: MIT and the
University of Chicago. In the same year that Caltech was on top,
MIT, though No. 3 overall, ranked 11th in graduation and retention
and had a value-added rate of -5. Chicago ranked 13th overall,
but scored 28th and -7 respectively.
of C vice president and dean of College enrollment Michael C.
Behnke says that Chicago, like Caltech and MIT (where he served
as dean of admissions), is punished for having a specialized mission.
"We have made a conscious decision not to be all things to
all people," he says. "And we get penalized for that."
This echoes a letter Gerhard Casper wrote to U.S. News
in 1996 condemning the value-added category. "The California
Institute of Technology offers a rigorous and demanding curriculum
that undeniably adds great value to its students," he wrote.
"Did it ever occur to the people who created this 'measure'
that many students do not graduate from Caltech precisely because
they find Caltech too rigorous and demanding-that is, adding too
much value-for them?"
Caltech and MIT, Chicago has always done well in the rankings-from
a high of No. 5 in 1985 to a low of No. 14 in 1998. It tied in
the 2001 rankings at No. 9 with Dartmouth and Columbia. But like
their colleagues at peer institutions, U of C administrators are
caught between the rock of rankings they believe don't have any
value and the hard place of constituents who believe they do.
"They are meaningless but people give them a great deal of
weight," says Chicago provost Geoffrey R. Stone, JD'71, who
tells stories of deans harassed by angry alumni whenever U.S.
News changes its methodology and the ratings suffer.
compelled to participate is especially aggravating if it runs
counter to your mission as an educational institution. "We
probably feel more injured than some other places because we have
tremendous self-regard," says Chicago's O'Neill, "and
we understand that other peoples' numbers don't represent what
is valuable in education."
the overall rankings may be meaningless-even contrary to a school's
mission-some of the indicators speak unsavory truths about Chicago.
"There are certain things we don't do as well as we should,
and U.S. News has taken us to task for that, and not inappropriately,"
says Stone. In addition to Chicago's poor graduation and retention
rate, it has suffered in the rankings for its lack of selectivity,
this year ranked at No. 22. Though U of C students are notoriously
self-selecting and the acceptance rate has dropped significantly
over the past few years (from 71 percent in 1996 to 44 percent
in 2001) as the freshman retention rate has steadily risen, the
school still lags behind its peers in these categories, which
combined count for 40 percent of the total score. "U.S.
News has in a very small sense reaffirmed a set of judgments
about these being things we should pay attention to," says
Stone, "not because of U.S. News but because we should
pay attention to them anyway."
categories, however, should be cause for celebration. Chicago
consistently performs as one of the top schools in small class
size, faculty resources, and academic reputation. But these successes
are not enough to take the sting out of being measured according
to criteria that you don't equate with overall value.
these things originally came out, we were near the top-No. 6,
I think-and at that point we thought 'How can they undervalue
us so much?'" says Ted O'Neill. "It is galling to think
that places considered by these rankings as better than us are
places we consider as having less value on our own terms. I don't
know that anyone can see us in U.S. News and World Report anywhere
between 5 and 14 and say, 'Oh, now I understand the University
POWERS THAT BE
at U.S. News would have us believe that colleges and universities
are race cars, flying around the track at death-defying speeds,
passing and being passed every lap to the ooohs and aaahs of the
crowd who pay their $3.50 to watch Caltech fly by Stanford, only
to blow a tire the next lap, or to gasp in voyeuristic horror
as Reed slams into the wall at the third turn, its president carried
away on a stretcher with a weak "thumbs up" to the applause
of the crowd. Eventually the checkered flag drops, the winner
bows modestly to receive the Delphic laurel, and the sunburned
crowd goes home to talk excitedly for months until the next race
truth, institutions of higher education move about the speed of
the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There are no laps
(only a mind-numbingly slow process forward), no fans (only critics),
and no interest among the participants in soaring through lap
499 at 207 miles per hour (only a concern with the everyday mundanities-keeping
dorms safe, filing research grant applications, hiring a new assistant
professor to fill a space in the Department of Middle Eastern
problem with the DMV scenario is predictability. If schools change
so slowly, how slowly will the rankings change? And if the rankings
change too slowly, how will U.S. News sell magazines? "The
way they sell magazines is by causing different outcomes,"
says Provost Stone, "and they cause different outcomes by
changing the criteria and by changing the weight they give the
criteria. U.S. News wouldn't sell magazines if their rankings
changed as slowly as the institutions."
News would also have us believe that they are the people we
can trust-they even call themselves education "experts"
in one issue. As the sales of the rankings issue increased, so
did their limitless knowledge. They are now "experts"
on hospitals, graduate schools, professional schools, financial
aid, HMOs, and high schools-all of which have received rankings
issues of their own. One seven-week period in 1997 saw four separate
rankings issues. All the circus needs now is a truck to drive
it from town to town.
ridiculous as that sounds, it may not be far off. The magazine
has spent more than a year planning a "National College Tour,"
a 48-foot tractor trailer that would travel from state to state
offering admissions and financial-aid advice to high-school seniors.
"Since education is our franchise," says Ty Trippet,
a U.S. News spokesman, "it's more a kind of service-slash-promotion
project." I can picture it now, the kids poking about on
the computers in the back (seeing if the porn sites are blocked),
the counselors ignoring questions from teachers about why their
alma maters aren't ranked higher, and the parents sitting on benches,
looking at the giant "U.S. News National College Tour"
banner flailing in the wind and asking each other, "Didn't
they used to have a magazine or something?"
SO MAYBE I'M BEING CRUEL.
Or maybe I'm just feeling guilty-when I left the military to return
to school in the mid-'90s I used the U.S. News rankings
and found them to be of great help, simply because I didn't know
where else to turn. And therein lies the sole justification for
not only their existence, but also their popularity: they fill
a need. "One of the most important services the rankings
provide is a starting point from which students and parents can
begin to judge the academic quality and the differences of the
schools they are intrigued by," says Cary. "There are
criticisms and there is buzz that puts us on the defensive, but
we also hear from a lot of people who tell us they think we're
doing the right thing."
don't get it wrong by order of magnitude," admits Stone.
"To the extent that one is trying to pick a college or graduate
program and doesn't have enough sophisticated information to be
able to make fairly broad judgments about relative reputation
and excellence, U.S. News can be a useful form of information."
the magazine's credit, it has developed a sense of modesty. Tracing
the introductory articles from the first issue to the present,
one reads in 1983 an authoritarian "The verdict is in";
in 1997 a more genuine "While they are only one factor to
use...the rankings themselves are the single best source of information";
and in 2000 a downright humble "...the college experience...can't
be reduced to mere numbers." The 2000 issue even includes
a full-page article by Edward Tenner, AM'67, PhD'72, on why you
shouldn't pay attention to the rankings.
and Morse also take great pains to gather advice. "We meet
with between 50 and 100 college deans and presidents who come
to visit us every year with their delegations," says Cary.
"We meet with about a dozen institutional researchers-data
people-from about a dozen colleges every year. Then we have a
college advisory board, about 20 people, mainly admissions officials,
and we have just started a second advisory board of financial-aid
officials. Then we have another ad hoc board of high-school guidance
counselors." They also attend conferences, colloquia, and
presentations year-round, constantly fielding complaints and suggestions
about the rankings. "Honestly, we listen," says Cary,
"and from that we take suggestions on how they might be adjusted."
1997 the magazine commissioned the National Opinion Research Center
(NORC) at the U of C to study the rankings. The NORC report was
not flattering. Words like "weaknesses," "disturbing,"
and "arbitrary" march about like ants on potato salad.
The conclusion: "
the weights used to combine the various
measures into an overall rating lack any defensible empirical
or theoretical basis." The magazine says it has since made
four of the five changes suggested by the report, including a
survey of school administrators assessing the values of the categories
Nicholas Thompson, the Stanford student who founded FUNC and is
now an editor at the Washington Monthly, agrees that U.S.
News is making progress. "The rankings have clearly steadily
improved over the last 15 years," he says. "The major
flaw with them now is they have very little measure of what actually
matters in a college education: how much students learn on campus."
Or as he put it more vividly in a September 2000 Washington
Monthly article, "[T]hey don't measure whether students
spend their evenings talking about Jonathan Swift or playing beer
cowrote a September 2001 follow-up article with Amy Graham, the
statistician who adjusted the methodology to put Caltech on top
in 1999. In the article they complain that the current rankings
system follows the equation, "Good students plus good faculty
equals good school," likening it to "measuring the quality
of a restaurant by calculating how much it paid for silverware
and food." The rankings could be improved, they suggest,
by incorporating such measures as alumni satisfaction surveys
and data from the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE),
a survey funded by Pew Charitable Trusts that asks college students
how invested they are in their studies.
U.S. NEWS WILL TAKE
Thompson's and Graham's suggestions remains to be seen. Cary is
interested in incorporating the NSSE data into the rankings, but
is held back by student privacy issues and the small number of
colleges the survey covers.
Morse and Cary spend so much time conferring with academics to
improve the methodology, they can no longer be accused of ignoring
criticism or evaluating academia without proper perspective. Indeed,
they deserve credit for at least striving to improve methodology
and for guiding students toward other sources of information.
Even on the U.S. News Web site-which generates 8 million
hits when the rankings are released each year-users can click
on the category that matters most to them and watch the schools
schools must now turn the finger on themselves when complaining
about the rankings. Although the 1995 Wall Street Journal article
prompted U.S. News to guard against schools reporting inaccurate
data, many institutions have become craftier at making themselves
look good, some changing academic policies to improve their standings.
Some schools purge alumni databases, removing people unlikely
to donate (e.g., students who did not graduate) in order to increase
the alumni giving rate. Other schools market to students who have
no realistic chance of being admitted simply to drive up the school's
applications and thus its selectivity rate.
are also colleges that discriminate against good applicants who
might lower the school's yield by taking an offer from a more
prestigious school. "I actually know of institutions-I have
been told by the people who make the decisions," says Geof
Stone, "that they have adopted a policy of not admitting
the strongest applicants, entirely dictated by U.S. News and
World Report. This is a practice which could never be defended
in any substantive way."
the drive to abolish SAT scores from college admissions-a campaign
that seems to go hand in hand with a distaste for rankings-has
been tainted with accusations that the real purpose of dropping
SATs is to raise the school's average SAT score in the U.S. News
rankings. If SATs are optional, only high scorers submit them,
thus increasing the average score a school can faithfully report.
Schools also benefit from an increased number of applications
from students who see their SATs as a barrier to other institutions,
thus driving up the school's selectivity along with its application
rate. Currently about 20 percent of colleges and universities
don't require SATs or ACTs.
maybe U.S. News and the colleges it ranks will get on the
same track. Maybe the magazine will come up with a methodology
that pleases academics and still provides the information that
prospective students and their parents want. The larger problem,
however, will persist. No matter how the magazine chooses to measure
schools, it is still ranking one against another in a near-random
hierarchy-constructed to measure quality in quantitative terms-implying
that there is an ideal state to which every school should endeavor
until all schools are identical, that each school should be all
things to all people-a task at which Chicago will always fail.