A rank smell: America's 'best' schools propped up a terrible college ranking system – New York Daily News

Last month, U.S. News & World Report dropped Columbia University from second to 18th in its ranking, after one of its own math professors, Michael Thaddeus, showed that the university had submitted misleading data. U.S. News originally removed Columbia from the rankings entirely, but later decided to demote them instead, replacing Columbia’s dubious data with information compiled from “outside sources.” Thaddeus reasonably argued that the fact that an institution could drop 16 positions in a single year “just discredits the whole ranking operation.”
But that’s true only if U.S. News is attempting to measure the academic quality of college programs. In fact, this has almost nothing to do with what U.S. News is measuring. What the publication is really measuring is wealth. That’s hardly surprising since elite universities’ principal mission is keeping rich kids rich. Their admissions process launders accidents of birth into a tradable currency of extraordinary value. And U.S. News lends them a further measure of credibility by effectively ranking which schools attract the richest kids and have the wealthiest alumni.
If the claim that the rankings only measure wealth is overstated, it’s not by much. U.S. News considers nine criteria in its rankings — listed here in descending order of significance: graduation and retention rates, undergraduate academic reputation, faculty resources, financial resources per student, graduation rate performance, student selectivity, graduate indebtedness, social mobility and alumni giving rate.
Princeton and the rest play the cynical game. (Shutterstock/Shutterstock)
The biggest ticket item, graduation and retention rates, is tied directly to wealth. The Education Longitudinal Study — run by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics — tracked a representative sample of 15,000 students from high school through their early twenties. Fourteen percent of students from the lowest-income quartile graduated from college, as compared to 60% from the highest-income quartile.
It may be tempting to attribute this to differences in academic preparation, but the disparity persisted even among students who scored in the top quartile in math. Forty-one percent of the academically strongest students from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds graduated from college, as opposed to 74% from high-socioeconomic-status backgrounds.
U.S. News assesses “reputation” with a survey that includes more than 600 questions and asks college leaders to rank more than 200 peer institutions into five tiers of quality. This is hardly an objective process. How would you rate Princeton’s undergraduate business program? College presidents rated it quite highly. Problem is, Princeton doesn’t have an undergraduate business program. The subjects in this experiment, related by the education reporter Anya Kamenetz, fell victim to the “halo effect,” the tendency of people to be influenced by their previous judgments and their positive impressions of a brand.
“Faculty resources” means class size, compensation and percentage of faculty with a terminal degree in their field. Pretty much everyone at a wealthy college has a Ph.D., and class sizes are generally small at liberal arts colleges, so elite universities game this system by paying their professors handsomely. The average professor at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree, makes between two and three times as much as a professor at the City University of New York, where I teach. Furthermore, faculty salaries have nothing to do with skill in the classroom, but U.S. News makes no effort whatsoever to measure the quality of education.
For the fourth factor, U.S. News measures average spending per student on instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services and institutional support. This point is key: The rankings reward a school for spending money on the students it lets in rather than spending money to let in needy students. This bias taints other criteria in the U.S. News rankings. For example, a college’s best strategy for doing well on the graduate indebtedness metric is to let in lots of wealthy students since they accumulate less debt. The graduation rate performance metric similarly rewards spending on admitted students as opposed to admitting needy students.
The same dynamic affects the social mobility calculation, which U.S. News included for the first time in 2019. This isn’t any economist’s notion of social mobility. U.S. News defines it as the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients and Pell Grant “performance” — a comparison of Pell Grant recipient graduation rates with the graduation rates of wealthier students. Very little consideration is given to how many Pell Grant students a school actually admits.
“Student selectivity” may be the most offensive metric of all. Schools historically have tried to game this metric by encouraging students to apply who were unlikely to get in. Significant weight continues to be allocated to SAT and ACT scores, even though both are highly correlated with wealth.
In their totality, the U.S. News rankings reward schools that pay their faculty a king’s ransom, admit mostly wealthy students who are overwhelmingly likely to succeed, and lavish them with resources.
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Almost everyone in higher ed has a bad word to say about U.S. News. “It’s one of the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that’s supposedly populated by the best minds in the country — theoretical physicists, writers, critics — is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine,” Bard President Leon Botstein told me in an interview for my book, “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.”
“They do almost a parody of real research. I joke that the next thing they’ll do is rank churches. You know, ‘Where does God appear most frequently? How big are the pews?’”
Former Vassar President Catharine Bond Hill faults them most for diverting money from needy students. “Any dollar spent on need-based financial aid receives little credit in the U.S. News rankings,” she said.
The real question is, how does something so universally deplored persist? It’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that the rankings are a reflection of what elite colleges truly value — success at helping the affluent cement their status.
Over the years, there have been modest efforts to buck the system. In 1995, Reed became the first school to announce that it wouldn’t participate in the rankings. Reed wanted to avoid the homogenizing pressure of rankings, which its leadership saw as antithetical to their institutional ethos that education should be its own reward. Steve Koblik, the president at the time, asked U.S. News to simply omit his college from the rankings. The editors responded by assigning Reed the lowest possible value for each missing variable. Reed dropped from the second quartile to the bottom.
Nice little college you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.
In 2005, Sarah Lawrence College stopped accepting SAT scores. The school didn’t engage in the ruse of making them optional. It stopped taking them altogether, relying instead on high school grades and extensive writing samples. Since they didn’t accept the SAT, they stopped providing SAT information to U.S. News.
The magazine responded by making up a number. Specifically, they assigned Sarah Lawrence an SAT score one standard deviation below the average score of its peer group. In other words, they harshly penalized Sarah Lawrence for marching out of lockstep and trying to improve the socioeconomic diversity of its student body.
“Like unilateral disarmament,” wrote President Michele Tolela Myers, “unilateral withdrawal from the U.S. News ranking system is dangerous.”
In 2007, Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions officer at USC and the alter ego of an idealistic, one-man non-profit known as the Education Conservancy, called on colleges and universities to stop completing the U.S. News reputational survey and to refrain from using rankings in promotional materials. At its annual meeting, a consortium of liberal arts colleges known as the Annapolis Group debated the letter. About 60 schools said they’d abide by Thacker’s proposal. After U.S. News denounced the letter, everyone got cold feet and the insurgency died in its infancy.
Conspicuously absent from this movement has been any leadership from the Ivy-Plus colleges.
“I understand why Mort Zuckerman and a third-rate news magazine, who looked into the crystal ball and discovered they were going out of business, hit on a life-saving formula,” Botstein told me. “I don’t fault them. They’re smart charlatans. They’re P.T. Barnum. I understand why such a scam would be created by a news magazine.”
Bard’s president can barely contain his venom as he gets going. “What I did not expect was that the leadership, the beneficiaries, would embrace it. For Harvard, Yale and Princeton to go along with this mediocre, ridiculous, undisciplined, undifferentiated and harmful notion? They essentially became whores.”
As in so many other respects, elite colleges have shown no inclination to disturb a system that benefits them. It’s no coincidence that these schools are at the top of the U.S. News rankings. The magazine’s former editor-in-chief, Mel Elfin, saw it as essential that the magazine’s order jibe with people’s preconceptions.
“When you’re picking the most valuable player in baseball and a utility player hitting .220 comes up as the MVP, it’s not right,” Elfin said at the time.
Botstein says that elite colleges could have nipped the rankings debacle in the bud.
“This could have been stopped by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Chicago getting together and saying we’re not participating in this,” he said. “We condemn it and want nothing to do with it. They could have gone on a campaign to destroy its credibility.”
Botstein shakes his head. “Instead,” he continued, “they did the opposite.” Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine the status quo changing without the leadership of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. If Reed could survive, surely they could too, but there’s never been so much as a peep from the elites. Harvard sociologist Christina Ciocca-Eller says the explanation for their silence is the obvious one.
“It’s nice to be king,” she says. “There’s nothing not nice about being king.”
Mandery is author of “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.”
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News

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