More Proof That College Rankings Aren’t Worth Squat

News & Politics

U.S. News and World Report has issued its annual “Best Colleges” report to the usual whining and complaints by colleges and universities that they weren’t ranked higher as well as griping from parents that the “rankings” are useless.

At the top of the list is — no surprise — that bastion of Ivy League wokeness, Princeton University. Princeton edged out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the top spot in the “national universities” category. Williams College is at the top of the Liberal Arts colleges rankings, followed by Amherst. There are several categories, including regional universities, regional colleges, engineering programs, historically black colleges and universities, and others.

More than 40 million people will access the guide. That’s 40 million people who need an intervention. There is nothing in these rankings and school profiles that a reasonably intelligent seven-year-old couldn’t find by doing some basic searches online.

For colleges and universities, it’s a matter of pride. And since the schools don’t have much else to do, competition to climb the rankings can get a little out of hand.

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Columbia University, ranked number two in the “national universities” rankings in 2021, was forced to admit to using bogus data to try and game the rankings system. They fell to number 18.

Chronicle of Higher Education:

The result is that in U.S. News’s database, Columbia is missing statistics that other national universities have, such as the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients and the percentage of classes that have fewer than 20 students, which very likely hurt Columbia’s ranking. The university has not ranked as low as No. 18 since 1988, according an analysis posted online by Michael Thaddeus, a math professor at Columbia. It was Thaddeus’s analysis, which he published in February and which questioned the accuracy of Columbia’s ranking, that set in motion the decisions that led to Columbia’s diminished rank today.

U.S. News made little effort to verify the data being used to create the rankings. They apparently trusted educational institutions to be honest. I guess that practice is going to change in the future.

But besides the completely subjective criteria the magazine uses to “rank” the potential college experience for students, the damage done to higher education by these rankings can’t be denied.


At an event last month, US Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called for a “culture change in higher education now.”

“Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count,”he said. “That system of ranking is a joke.”

He criticized the “whole science behind climbing up the rankings,” which he said emphasizes wealth and affluence instead of broad opportunity.

“We must stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege,” Cardona said. He might have added that it’s ludicrous to conflate price with excellence. Harvard and other Ivy League schools charge $55,000 to $60,000 — or more — a year. But my alma mater, Drake University, offers the same degrees for less than $48K. Drake ranks 167 out of 443. It was, at one time, quite proud of its nickname, “The Harvard of the Midwest,” a nickname used by about 50 other midwestern schools.

But this brings up the major problem with college rankings. You’re not going to find the best fit for your child in the pages of a nearly defunct news magazine. “Reputation” is a commodity, bought and sold, having little to do with whether it’s the best place for you. The best way to discover what school is best for your kid is to go there — not once, but two or three times. Talk to students, to faculty, to workers. You’ll be surprised how honest they are and how eager most of them will be to help.

All that money and effort going into raising a school’s ranking might have been better expended improving the educational experience for students rather than gaming the system.

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