Yale’s law school made the stunning announcement last week that it would no longer participate in the influential rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report. Given the outsize importance attributed to the rankings by prospective applicants and alumni, Yale’s decision sent shock waves through the legal profession, and indeed all of higher education. Yet the law schools at Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and Michigan quickly followed suit. Will the universities of which they are a part join the boycott? Will other colleges and professional schools do the same? Could this be the beginning of the end for college rankings?
I sure hope so.
Since their emergence in 1983, the U.S. News college rankings have grown into a huge juggernaut. They have withstood decades of withering criticism — from journalists, university presidents and the U.S. secretary of education — that the methodology ignores the distinctive character of individual schools and drives institutions to abandon priorities and principles in favor of whatever tweaks will bump them up a notch or two.
U.S. News has shrugged off repeated demonstrations that its scoring system, which rests on unverified data, can be gamed. Columbia University submitted inflated statistics, and won itself second place in the 2022 “Best National Universities” list — just the latest and most visible example of this phenomenon.
Though nearly all professional educators disdain the rankings, only a few maverick schools before last week had dared to pull out. U.S. News effectively punished them by coming up with its own statistics to plug into the ranking formula. After Reed College (of which I was once president) pulled out in 1995, its ranking plummeted from the top to the bottom quartile. Columbia, under fire for its apparent reporting discrepancies, chose not to submit data for the latest ranking, and its position dropped to No. 18 from No. 2.
Reed College managed to survive its fall — indeed to thrive — by wearing its rebellious stance proudly, as a sign of its fierce commitment to intellectual rigor. The impact of Columbia’s recent demotion remains to be seen. But two students have already filed lawsuits alleging that the university’s inflated ranking score induced them to enroll under false pretenses.
It seems that most schools live in terror of a decline in their ranking, and for good reason. Scholarly research consistently shows that a significant drop in one year’s rankings correlates with a weaker applicant pool the next year. As one college president once told me, “I hate the rankings, but unilateral disarmament is suicide.”
Yet, something tells me this time is different.
It’s much harder to dismiss Harvard, Yale and the other top-tier law schools than, say, Reed College or other onetime rankings holdouts such as St. John’s College. Those law schools sit at the peak of prestige, wealth and influence. Their actions are impossible to ignore.
And their reasons for boycotting U.S. News are not just quibbles about ranking methodology or unreliable statistics. The deans are making a powerful claim that the formula used by U.S. News rewards wealth and privilege by subtly penalizing law schools that seek to provide access to the legal profession for people from less privileged backgrounds and help prepare their graduates for careers in public service.
Some observers have speculated that this explanation may conceal other motives, such as a desire to circumvent the Supreme Court’s expected decision outlawing racial preferences for admissions. Or that Harvard (No. 4) and Berkeley (No. 9) are simply dissatisfied with their current rankings, though that would hardly explain top-ranked Yale. The risks of being punished by U.S. News are so big, however, that I think we must take the deans at their word and therefore focus our attention on the merits of their objections, rather than speculate about their motives.
And the law school deans’ argument applies to undergraduate college rankings as well, for most of the same reasons.
These rankings rely on various “student selectivity” measures, such as the standardized test scores of entering classes and, for some graduate schools, the school’s acceptance rate. The rankings have encouraged admissions offices to give more weight to test scores, to expand binding early decision programs and to greatly increase merit (rather than need-based) financial aid — practices that favor wealthier applicants, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.
The “outcome” measures used by U.S. News, such as overall graduation rates or, for graduate schools, postgraduate employment success, further encourage schools to admit applicants who are already programmed for success. And although many schools want to encourage more students to pursue public-service careers, succeeding at that goal may well cost them points in the U.S. News scoring system because salaries for those jobs are relatively low.
Another problem with the rankings is that they equate academic quality with institutional wealth (as measured by financial resources per student, faculty salaries and the like). This encourages admissions preferences for full-paying students, legacies and children of wealthy donors, which in turn helps to fuel the spending and fund-raising arms race that already afflicts higher education. At the same time, the ranking formulas give schools no credit for their spending on need-based financial aid, although U.S. News does give colleges some credit for having a high graduation rate for students who have received federal Pell Grants.
Even the belated attempt by U.S. News to reward schools for having low student debt loads can backfire, by encouraging them to admit more high-income students who will not need to borrow.
Some educators say that U.S. News — for all its failings — is still the best available measure of institutional performance. But I hope many others will publicly acknowledge that the time has come to break the U.S. News habit.
As schools further down the pecking order stop taking the rankings seriously, applicants will be free to create their own criteria for excellence, unearthing information from guidebooks, government databases and school websites. In other words, applicants to colleges and law schools will need to do their own homework instead of relying on a magazine to do it for them.
Meanwhile, educators, freed from the U.S. News straitjacket, will be liberated to pursue their distinctive educational missions: to set their own priorities; to focus more intently on what students learn, which now receives no weight in the ranker’s calculus; to take chances on more promising applicants from less privileged backgrounds; and to prepare graduates for a broader range of fulfilling careers. They will, in short, return to higher education’s historical function as an engine of social mobility and service for the public good.