Why You Should Distrust College Rankings

Last Updated Jun 11, 2009 7:17 PM EDT

Are schools trying to sabotage their competitors' U.S. News & World Report's college rankings?

It sure looks like it.

An administrator at Clemson University recently revealed at an academic conference that her school gives crummy marks to its peers when filling out the magazine's annual surveys. Each year, U.S. News sends a peer survey to three administrators at Clemson and every other institution in the national university category.

I've always found it preposterous that administrators at these schools are supposed to grade their peers. The top dogs at Penn State, for instance, are supposed to give marks to schools as diverse at Harvard, University of Florida, Arizona State and Northwestern. If Penn State's president knows enough about these other institutions -- and dozens of other universities -- then he is not spending enough time focused on his own campus.

While the peer reviews are absurd, they do constitute 25% of each school's overall USNWR ranking. And that explains why Clemson has been giving below average marks to its competition. Clemson, which has previously announced that it hopes to claw its way into the ranks of the top 20 national universities, has denied wrongdoing though this has hardly quieted the firestorm.

It would be naive to think that Clemson is the only school trying to manipulate its way into higher rankings. Last summer, for instance, Baylor University was caught trying to manipulate its SAT scores.

Despite the magazine's assurances that it can control for institutional hanky panky, consider this episode just another reminder of why you shouldn't put much stock, if any, on college rankings.

Clemson image by Let Ideas Compete.