In my senior year of high school, I had the top 25 US News undergraduate college rankings memorized. The tied ranking of 25th from the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon was seared into my brain. Although there is a smorgasbord of different college rankings, US News arguably has the most influence on how applicants think about elite colleges. I spent endless hours looking at the US News list for a reason: It was something seemingly objective that I could make my judgments about. Deciphering and consolidating thousands of different opinions and points of view is next to impossible, but the rankings offer a foothold from which to orient yourself.
Opinions about school quality vary widely and are often based on incomplete information. For example, my father never considered the University of Chicago to be as prestigious as the other top 10 universities, even though it is ranked the sixth best university in the country. Similarly, as immigrants from India, my parents’ knowledge of American schools other than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is limited. Whatever the reason, the fact is that we all, to some degree, have different perspectives on American universities. And as a result, rankings like US News help structure a chaotic college admissions process. That’s why he used to be a strong supporter of them.
As you can imagine, it’s a big deal that Columbia University’s national ranking in US News recently dropped from second to 18th. As a well-known and prestigious university, the drastic drop in its ranking came as a surprise to many. Columbia was found to have sent falsified data to US News. Specifically, a math professor named Michael Thaddeus found discrepancies that made undergraduate class sizes appear smaller than they are, spending on instruction seemed higher than it is, and professors seemed more educated than they were. As the scandal unfolds, many are asking the same questions: What really goes into college rankings? Do the rankings really reflect the quality of a school’s education? While this all started for me with the commotion around Columbia’s new ranking, now I have only one thought left: Does this ranking system, which many of us once relied on, really reflect the quality of a student’s education? school?
To get started, let’s take a deeper look at what it takes to determine a college’s ranking. The five factors are retention and graduation rates, faculty resources, expert opinion, financial resources, student excellence, and alumni donations. At first glance, there are some factors that may not make sense. For example, measuring faculty resources boils down to the amount of money a school can allocate to its faculty, but I prefer to look at how good those faculty members are at teaching. Furthermore, it does not reflect the reality of higher education to have an entire category devoted to expert opinion, which essentially amounts to a measure of prestige and reputation. The “experts” tend to be administrators from other institutions, who often have idiosyncratic views about what makes a college education worthwhile. Although I am sure that better faculty and financial resources could contribute to a better quality of education, at what point should we stop rewarding wealth? The cycle works like this: By prioritizing a school’s wealth by quantifying its level of education, rich schools attract more students and those schools become even richer; it is endless.
Another problem is that it is also very easy for universities to submit falsified data. Although Columbia is currently at the center of the scandal, counterfeiting has been a constant problem; US News itself regularly announces that it has found discrepancies in the submitted data. Just last year, the former dean of Temple University’s business school was found to have used fraudulent data between 2014 and 2018 to get first place in his online MBA program. This year alone, the University of Southern California had to remove its school of education from the rankings as a result of inaccuracies over five years. With a quantification method that could be more equitable and colleges “cheating” their way to the top, what we are left with is a list that may or may not truly reflect how good a school is at teaching its students.
In addition to the lack of enforcement around colleges submitting accurate information, another issue is how colleges can manipulate the system to their advantage; the best example of this is Northeastern University. In 1996, Northeastern was ranked 162nd and, in 26 short years, made a huge jump to 44th, moving up 118 places. According to journalist Max Kutner, Richard Freeland, the former Northeastern president responsible for his change, told him that he ordered university researchers to “crack the code of US News and replicate its formulas.”
In practice, this meant enacting changes like smaller class sizes, hiring more impressive teachers, and improving amenities. Instead of focusing on genuinely improving the quality of education and access to that education, when such a list takes over the lives of students and universities alike, it can have a huge influence on what gets prioritized. . In my opinion, at least, it seems unlikely that Northeastern’s focus on recruiting higher-caliber high school students to boost their SAT scores and retention and graduation rates will do much to improve the education delivered in college.
I’m not going to sit here and write that university rankings should be abolished. Perhaps, in an ideal world, universities would not be ranked and all that would matter is that you are getting an education; but this is not an ideal world and, at the end of the day, rankings do matter. Without them, there would only be more different opinions, with a million uncategorizable data points. As such, I think the only way forward from here is for US News to become more methodical with its ratings. This means holding colleges accountable for submitting accurate data, devising a better system for quantifying college rankings that doesn’t favor wealthier colleges, and generally being more holistic in your deliberations. I am by no means an expert on these matters, but I think we can all agree that there are definitely problems, and when it comes to a list that influences the minds of millions, we should work harder to fix them.
Palak Srivastava is an opinion columnist and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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