Los Angeles Times
A flawed college ranking system
Top law and medical schools will not submit data to U.S. News & World Report’s annual list. Good.
Ahandful of top medical schools, including Stanford and Columbia, pulled out of U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings in January, following a similar exodus of more than a dozen law schools, including UC Berkeley, Yale and Harvard, late last year.
It’s a welcome development that is overdue. Undergraduate institutions and other graduate schools should follow this lead.
For too long, colleges and universities have played along with the rankings process that is based on flawed methodology and prizes wealth and reputation over educational quality, even though many education leaders have criticized the fairness and validity of the rankings.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last year called the ranking system a “joke” because it encourages schools to game the system.
Higher-education institutions would serve students better by pushing for a new system that provides detailed information and data without relying on rankings.
The U.S. News & World Report guide reviews hundreds of colleges and universities based on criteria such as standardized test scores and class rank of incoming students, alumni giving rate, reputation and graduation rates.
Though U.S. News has made changes over the years to its methodology, deans and other faculty complain that the rankings still fail to consider important indicators about the quality of education their schools offer, and are counterproductive to their goals, particularly for enrolling a diverse student body and encouraging public service.
Yale law school Dean Heather K. Gerken noted that efforts to improve the school had the perverse result of lowering its ranking scores in various categories, even though the school has occupied the No. 1 spot on law school rankings every year. For example, Gerken said, U.S. News classifies as “unemployed” Yale law school graduates who receive paid public interest fellowships from Yale to serve their communities. Such methodology effectively punishes the school for its public service fellowships. Graduates who are pursuing another advanced degree are also counted as unemployed.
All of the medical and law schools that pulled out recently said they would publish online data about their schools that would allow prospective students to evaluate their offerings. Stanford medical school plans to include metrics such as students’ access to extensive patient care and research opportunities.
That it has taken this long for some schools to abandon the U.S. News & World Report rankings speaks to the popularity of these annual guides and the public’s obsession with rankings. Other options for information about colleges exist, including the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, but these are not as well-known.
Yet these rankings do a disservice to families and students because they can be misleading. For example, a less expensive college might have a lower ranking in areas such as reputation but provide a better educational experience than a highly ranked one.
Oregon-based Reed College has declined to participate in the rankings since 1995 for similar reasons as those cited in the last few months by other schools. A welldocumented and comprehensive study published in the journal Academic Science in October 2001 suggested that metrics to measure medical schools should include a school’s commitment to public service, students’ racial and ethnic diversity, and graduates’ performance on board exams.
One of the complaints about the rankings is that it encourages schools to cheat by manipulating or cherry-picking data. The University of Southern California last year withdrew its Rossier School of Education from the 2023 rankings after finding inaccuracies in data reported by the school for at least five years. An investigation commissioned by the school revealed that two deans omitted key data that resulted in a higher ranking. Now the university faces a lawsuit alleging fraud by former students.
Other schools also have massaged data submitted to U.S. News, not surprisingly in a system that relies on self-reported data. For example, the former dean of Temple University’s business school last year was sentenced to 14 months in prison for a fraud conviction in connection with falsifying information submitted to U.S. News. And a senior admissions official at Claremont McKenna College resigned in 2012 over inf lated SAT scores submitted to the publication.
U.S. News & World Report, which bills itself as an authority on education rankings, has made some changes in response to the criticism. But it should overhaul its methodology and produce an annual report that is less about rank and more about providing truly useful information. Until then, schools that continue to submit their data to the publication are complicit in a system that can too easily mislead students and families.