College 2005 November 2005

Is There Life After Rankings?

A report card from one college president, whose school now shuns the U.S. News ranking system—and has not only survived but thrived
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Three years ago I experienced a form of liberation denied to most of my peers in higher education. I left the University of Pennsylvania, where, as dean of its law school, I had lived under the U.S. News & World Report ranking system for ten years, and assumed the presidency of Reed College, one of a handful of American institutions of higher education that refuse to cooperate with that system.

For ten years Reed has declined to fill out the annual peer evaluations and statistical surveys that U.S. News uses to compile its rankings. It has three primary reasons for doing so. First, one-size-fits-all ranking schemes undermine the institutional diversity that characterizes American higher education. The urge to improve one's ranking creates an irresistible pressure toward homogeneity, and schools that, like Reed, strive to be different are almost inevitably penalized. Second, the rankings reinforce a view of education as strictly instrumental to extrinsic goals such as prestige or wealth; this is antithetical to Reed's philosophy that higher education should produce intrinsic rewards such as liberation and self-realization. Third, rankings create powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behavior for the sole or primary purpose of inflating one's score. Because the rankings depend heavily on unaudited, self-reported data, there is no way to ensure either the accuracy of the information or the reliability of the resulting rankings.

When Reed's former president Steven Koblik decided to stop submitting data to U.S. News, he asked the magazine simply to omit Reed from its listings. Instead the editors arbitrarily assigned the lowest possible value to each of Reed's missing variables, with the result that Reed dropped in one year from the second quartile to the bottom quartile. After the predictable outcry, U.S. News purportedly began to rank Reed based on information available from other sources. In subsequent years that procedure usually placed the college somewhere in the middle of the second quartile, with a footnote stating that we "refused to fill out the U.S. News statistical survey," and claiming to base the ranking on data from published sources. But since much of the information needed to complete the magazine's ranking algorithm is unpublished, one can only guess how the editors arrive at a value.

Reed's experience has not gone unnoticed. In a recent conversation with me the president of a leading liberal arts college lamented the distortions and deceptions that the ranking process engenders. When I suggested that he follow our example, he replied, "We can't. They will just plug in their own data, and we'll drop ten places in the rankings!" Criticism of the rankings is nearly unanimous, but so is compliance with them. According to the latest statistics supplied by U.S. News, only five percent of surveyed colleges and universities fail to submit the statistical questionnaire. In the words of another of my fellow presidents, "The rankings are merely intolerable; unilateral disarmament is suicide."

Far from committing suicide, Reed College has survived. Indeed, it has thrived. Over the past ten years the number of applicants has increased by 27 percent, and the quality of entering students, as indicated both by conventional SAT and GPA measures and by Reed's internal "reader rating" system, has steadily increased—it is far higher than suggested by our nominal place in the U.S. News pecking order. More important, Reed continues to offer an academic program widely recognized for its uncommon rigor, intellectual structure, and theoretical depth. Its students continue at unusually high rates to participate in faculty research and to earn competitive prizes and fellowships. The college continues to set the pace in the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D.

At professional meetings my colleagues often ask, "What is life like outside the rankings rat race?" and "How has Reed survived?"

Not cooperating with the rankings affects my life and the life of the college in several ways. Some are relatively trivial; for instance, we are saved the trouble of filling out U.S. News's forms, which include a statistical survey that has gradually grown to 656 questions and a peer evaluation for which I'm asked to rank some 220 liberal arts schools nationwide into five tiers of quality. Contemplating the latter, I wonder how any human being could possess, in the words of the cover letter, "the broad experience and expertise needed to assess the academic quality" of more than a tiny handful of these institutions. Of course, I could check off "don't know" next to any institution, but if I did so honestly, I would end up ranking only the few schools with which Reed directly competes or about which I happen to know from personal experience. Most of what I may think I know about the others is based on badly outdated information, fragmentary impressions, or the relative place of a school in the rankings-validated and rankings-influenced pecking order.

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