U.S. News College Rankings: The Same Deck, Hardly Reshuffled

Today, U.S. News released its annual list of the nation's best colleges. The usual suspects are in their usual places. So why can't we tear ourselves away?

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U.S. News & World Report has published its "Best Colleges 2014" list and, in a surprising development, the finest university in the land is a small college in Appalachia that eschews the practical goals of a college education and actually asks students to learn, to fall in love with ideas, to go where they intellectually fear. Accordingly, its graduates become not Goldman Sachs partners but people who actually, with unironic eagerness, strive to make a difference in the world. And most of them can quote Aristotle.

Just kidding. The new rankings are the same as the old rankings, which have been largely unchanged since the list was founded in 1984. The "National Universities" list is dominated by the Ivy League, while the "Liberal Arts Colleges" list belongs to the same old Northeastern bastions of privilege, with a few schools from California and the Midwest thrown into the mix. In thirty years, neither list has changed to any appreciable degree, but that hasn't diminished the importance of the "granddaddy of the college rankings."

In fact, the U.S. News list is one of the great rackets of magazine publishing, sustaining a moribund enterprise that was once a respectable newsweekly. U.S. News stopped actually publishing a print product about three years ago, its last few years devoted to "revelations" about the Shroud of Turin and the like. (Disclosure: U.S. News is owned by Mort Zuckerman, for whose New York Daily News I used to work; once, I bought him a salad, of which he ate about half.) So while the magazine is done, the brand remains, propped up almost entirely by the college rankings, as well as associated rankings of hospitals, mutual funds and cars, among other commodities.

The college rankings play into the American psyche, tugging at our desire to put things into lists and rank them (cf. David Letterman, BuzzFeed, et. al.). Yes, there is a "methodology" behind the list, but as Malcolm Gladwell persuasively argued in The New Yorker, the number-crunching behind the U.S. News rankings is not only inexact, it's also not very helpful:

There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution—how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.

Others have tried to remedy this problem by offering up rankings of their own. For example, the Washington Monthly college rankings page grandly says, "Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country." According to that magazine, you could do no better than Amherst College — which does pretty well on the U.S. News rankings, too.

Forbes, meanwhile, has a college rankings system of its own. Although its summit closely mirrors that of U.S. News, with Princeton and Stanford occupying two of the top three positions, the methodology page takes a clear swipe at its competitor: 

We’re not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank, SAT scores and the like. Our sights are set directly on [return of investment]: What are students getting out of college?

Yeah, okay. All these rankings fall into the same trap of wanting to distinguish themselves from U.S. News while pretty much having no choice but to acknowledge that U.S. News is the sine qua non of the college rankings business. In the end, all that snipping at U.S. News only makes U.S. News seem more indispensable, it's judgements ever more solid.

Worse than all that, perhaps, is the fact that the people who apply to the very best colleges in the U.S. — whether to Princeton, Oberlin or Berkeley — are, for the most part, extremely wealthy. As The New York Times reported last spring, "Most low-income students who have top test scores and grades do not even apply to the nation’s best colleges."

The report described a study that found that only 8% of poor students "follow the recommended strategy of applying to a range of colleges, including 'reach,' 'match' and 'safety.'" The percentage was a full eight times higher for wealthy students. 

That's a dispiriting finding because what truly makes college rankings appealing is the belief that anyone can get into Harvard, its gates as open to the children of Brownsville as to those of the Upper East Side. The rankings thus flatter striving parents who've managed to get a child into a well-ranked college, suggesting that upward mobility is at work. But as The Atlantic reported in May, elite colleges are "increasingly a force for inequality."

In other words, our society is in danger of becomes as stagnant as the college rankings we so dearly love.  

(Harvard: AP Photo/Lisa Poole; Berkeley: AP Photo/Eric Risberg; Oberlin: AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.