Why US News' College Rankings Are a Joke

Last Updated Aug 20, 2009 10:17 AM EDT

The monster story that broke this morning in the higher-ed world is the much anticipated release of the annual U.S. News & World Report's college rankings.

The magazine announced that Harvard and Princeton tied for the top spot as the nation's best university.

I couldn't care less about the big announcement. Why? Because I believe the rankings are a joke. Here's my reasoning: U.S. News doesn't try to measure the type of learning taking place at schools across the country. Instead the magazine is simply conducting a high-stakes beauty contest.

Twenty five percent of each school's score is based solely on its reputation -- deserved or not. Since the reputation of Harvard, Princeton and the rest of the Ivy League gang is excellent no matter what crazy things they do, they begin each rankings cycle with a huge head start.

On the other extreme, schools like Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee and Nova Southeastern University in Florida start out in the hole each year no matter what they do. Maybe they deserve to be near the bottom of the college rankings list, but who really knows?

So who determines that Harvard and Princeton are the best universities and that Trevecca and Nova Southeastern are among the crummiest? It's the same group of people. Each year every school in the "national university" category grades each other. Three administrators from Harvard, for instance, are expected to assign a grade to all the universities in its category, which includes all the Ivies, as well as such far-flung institutions as Purdue, Kent State, Georgetown, Iowa State, UCLA and the University of Tulsa.

So here's an obvious question: What do three busy administrators at Harvard or any other university know about what goes on at Washington State, Drexel, Wake Forest and dozens and dozens of other schools? And what does the college president at Trevecca know about Tulane, Emory, Dartmouth, Rutgers and all its university peers?

Here's the equally obvious answer: not much. But, of course, that makes no difference to US News. It's got to fuel the rankings mania or it won't sell magazines.

If US News wants to truly be helpful to families it should stop focusing on a college's "reputation" and instead it should try to measure the quality of the education taking place at schools. Now that would be helpful!

Princeton image by zbtwell. CC 2.0.

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