Writing in The Nation, David Kirp reviewed a book about the college rating system devised by US News and finds it to be as ridiculous as we have long believed. The book is BREAKING RANKS: HOW THE RANKINGS INDUSTRY RULES HIGHER EDUCATION AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT by Colin Diver, former president of Reed College.

Which are the “best” colleges and universities, according to the rankers? The most selective. The richest. The ones that have their pick of the most gifted students. The ones with the money to have fabulous student centers, libraries, gyms, etc.

This is nuts.

Kirp writes:


A few years back, the “Varsity Blues” scandal made front-page news. Rich parents, desperate to ensure that their offspring were accepted by an elite university, paid huge sums of money to an entrepreneur who promised “side door” admissions. Over the course of nearly a decade, athletic records were faked, bribes were paid to university staffers, and hired experts took the SAT instead of the students. To the public, the perp-walk treatment received by these parents and those who abetted them was a justified comeuppance for those who cheated the system.

But did the prosecution of these cheaters really solve the problem? Hardly. The titillating story about entitled parents, far from being an isolated scandal, was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg: It illustrated how the college admissions system in the United States is systemically broken. With places in top-rung schools almost as rare as the Hope Diamond, affluent parents scramble for every advantage. But universities made this system what it is today: They are these parents’ eager enablers, competing fiercely for the prestige and money that comes with success in the rankings game.

In Breaking Ranks, Colin Diver, a former president of Reed College, details how the rankings industry—most notoriously, U.S. News & World Report—powers this unvirtuous cycle. If you are buying a car or a refrigerator, a Consumer Reports–style rankings system works just fine. But, as Diver points out, there is no right answer when it comes to choosing a college—for all the fancy formulas the rankings companies trot out, they offer faux science. When the powerhouses, like U.S. News and its ilk, weigh competing values—selectivity versus affordability, reputation versus higher-than-predicted graduation rates—they are making an ideological judgment about what really matters in a college education. (The Washington Monthly’s formula emphasizes a college’s contribution to the public good, focusing on social mobility, research, and promoting public service. It’s a fine, if imperfectly executed, idea, but there is scant evidence that the magazine has much of an impact on students’ choices.) Thus, it’s apparent from the results that what counts most in these calculations is the wealth of the institution and, indirectly, the wealth of its students. Were it otherwise, would all of the top 20 universities be wealthy private schools?

The rankings game is a high-stakes affair. Where an institution stands in the U.S. News pecking order affects the number and credentials of its applicants, whose decisions are heavily influenced by a school’s prestige; the generosity of its donors, who like to give to the winners; the bragging rights of its trustees; and its appeal to the professoriate. It’s a perpetual cycle: A college that admits more well-credentialed students, has a growing endowment, and boasts a more highly regarded faculty receives a higher ranking, which in turn generates greater selectivity, bigger donations, happier trustees, and more-pedigreed professors. Because rankings are a zero-sum game, an institution that doesn’t do as well slips in the charts, and all hell breaks loose on the campus.

Kirp can imagine a fairer ratings system: one that credits colleges and universities for improving the life chances of their students:

A fairer rankings system would highlight universities like Georgia State and CUNY, whose mission is to help students from poor families enter the middle class, rather than fixating on institutions like Yale and Princeton, which burnish the prone-to-success credentials of their students. It would give a shout-out to colleges where the teaching is first-rate, the students are engaged in learning, and the alumni describe themselves as living a fulfilling life. But such an approach is unlikely to gain traction in this hyper-competitive society, where the meritocratic myth prevails and prestige is all that matters.