Stop Blaming the U.S. News College Rankings

Rather than complaining about the magazine's contentious lists, why not provide families and schools with alternative metrics?

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Joseph Nocera in the New York Times repeats a familiar complaint about the pernicious influence of U.S. News college rankings.

Universities that want to game the rankings can easily do so. U.S. News cares a lot about how much money a school raises and how much it spends: on faculty; on small classes; on facilities; and so on. It cares about how selective the admissions process is.

So universities that once served populations that were different from the Harvard or Yale student body now go after the same elite high school students with the highest SAT scores. And schools know that, if they want to get a better ranking, they need to spend money like mad -- even though they will have to increase tuition that is already backbreaking. "If you figure out how to do the same service for less money, your U.S. News ranking will go down," says Kevin Carey, the director of education policy at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. The rankings encourage trends that ill-serve the country.

It's time to stand up for U.S. News again. As Mr. Nocera's column itself acknowledges, the real problem is not the publication of this list, but the value that prospective college students and their parents attach to it. Using the data in the list, the public is free to change weightings, add criteria like value for tuition, and develop personalized rankings. They can combine the U.S. News metric with other rankings, including the one that's most intriguing to me, the Payscale College Salary Report, which lists mid-career as well as beginning income. (West Point and Annapolis rank higher in the former than MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, for one thing.)

It's a mistaken strategy to try to beat high-endowment schools at their own game. Rice University, which impressed me deeply when I visited the campus as a science editor, has done well by keeping to its low-tuition philosophy. U.S. News never forced any institution or applicant to become a list addict. Critics of the list should stop fulminating against it and help people use it and other information to find the best match for them.

The Washington Monthly lists cited by Mr. Nocera add some data highly relevant to applicants -- like actual versus predicted graduation rates given freshman characteristics -- but also add other factors, like total research budgets, that are generally meaningless to them. If you want to study music composition, what difference does it make how much NIH funding the medical school has received?

And, as I argued in a previous issue of the U.S. News college edition itself, quality of programs and students varies greatly within most institutions. There are troubled Ivy departments -- neglected by administrators and/or feuding internally -- and superb ones at less-well-known colleges.

All this being said, it would make U.S. News much more helpful if the report could identify those colleges with the greatest value added -- for example, by taking into account neither students' incoming SAT scores alone, nor the graduate and professional scores of seniors alone, but rather how much scores are improved.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Nocera really wants to fight obsession with lists and rankings, he might begin closer to home. A growing proportion of the New York Times Book Review has been devoted to bestseller lists (which were not regularly published until 1942, incidentally). In the print issue of September 30, I counted 27 pages without full-page advertising, of which six were devoted to lists. In some weeks the proportion has exceeded 25 percent.

I don't necessarily object to that proportion if that's what readers want, or if income from licensing the data helps the Times publish the weekly supplement, though I would have preferred to read additional reviews in the same space. But Mr. Nocera's argument about the responses of colleges and applicants to the U.S. News rankings could apply equally to uses of the Times Book Review's own lists by readers and publishers: that the Times lists promote conformity, may be manipulated despite safeguards, and favor established players. No matter. Listmania appears here to stay.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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