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