A Powerful Critique of College Rankings
Malcolm Gladwell's article appears in The New Yorker.
by William G. Durden ’71
Bravo to Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) for an insightful commentary on college rankings, specifically those of U.S. News & World Report. “The Order of Things,” which appears in The New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011, discusses the difficulty of creating a comprehensive ranking for something as complex as higher education. Just as many Americans absorbed readily the lessons of Gladwells’ earlier works, their attention to this work would serve to put commercial rankings in their appropriate place—as an afterthought at best.
Prospective students and their families who wish to be astute about finding a college “fit” rather than simply being manipulated to accept what is “sold” in U.S. News should appreciate this piece. And those who find the U.S. News “Best Colleges” guide indispensible to the college search should take notice.
Gladwell, with his trademark logic, affirms what numerous college presidents—including yours truly—have been saying for years: the U.S. News rankings are completely arbitrary viewed against any respectable standard except that which U.S. News asserts. Some of Gladwell’s comments bear highlighting:
“The first difficulty with rankings is that it can be surprisingly hard to measure the variable you want to rank—even in cases where that variable seems perfectly objective.”
“There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution. 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.”
“Almost none of the U.S. News variables, in fact, seem to be particularly effective proxies for engagement [how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students].”
“The U.S. News rankings turn out to be full of...implicit ideological choices,”—selectivity (how many students are rejected) versus efficacy (how many students improve educationally and graduate). “...U.S. News makes its position clear. It gives twice as much weight to selectivity as it does to efficacy....And why? Because a group of magazine analysts in an office building in Washington, D.C., decided twenty years ago to value selectivity over efficacy, to use proxies that scarcely relate to what they’re meant to be proxies for....”
Gladwell really hits the issue head on when he quotes Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State: “There is no possibility that we could do anything here at this university to get ourselves into the top ten or twenty or thirty—except if some donor gave us a billion dollars.” The U.S. News rankings are all about money. With but a few exceptions, the rankings descend in value according to size of the endowment and overall wealth of a college or university. There is little suspense, for example, in the category to which Dickinson College belongs—national liberal arts colleges—about which college will be ranked number one decade after decade. It will be either Williams, Amherst or Swarthmore. All have the largest endowments in this category—over a billion dollars.
Dickinson remains year after year in the 40-46 ranking range and will do so well into the future because that is where its wealth lines up in comparison to others. Alumni sometimes ask us why our recent success in endowment (100% increase in 12 years), applications (record of 6,000+ this year), national accolades for global programs and sustainability efforts as well as a myriad of academic initiatives that meet 21st century demands (for example, security studies), and the success of our recent graduates to get jobs and attend graduate and professional schools, does not propel us far higher in the U. S. News ranking. Well, there is a simple explanation. Even though our endowment has doubled to $342 million it still is low compared to those ahead of us. There is nothing we could possibly do educationally to improve our ranking to place us, let us say, in the top 25 institutions. But if we pumped $500 million immediately into our endowment, our ranking would jump dramatically.
The U.S. News ranking belongs to a past era in which only wealth drove all motivation. The public itself is having difficulty grasping this change and so it is no wonder that U.S. News rankings still attract devotees. Nowhere in the rankings does U.S. News account for the vital dynamics of the “new norm” beginning with the second decade of the 21st century and the recession, that is, maximize efficiently and powerfully the wealth you do possess. In fact, Dickinson College is doing just that. We are outperforming our wealth in a most responsible manner (and will continue to do so as we add more wealth). For example, if you just look at the colleges and universities with which we compete most directly for admissions’ candidates, the vast majority have endowments far greater than ours—Tufts, Brown, Hamilton, Colby, UVA, Middlebury.
If you accept that money is the sole measure of quality in education, you will be satisfied with U.S. News rankings. But if you know that the quality of an education is about more than “GOD DOLLARS” (as the founder of Dickinson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration, noted in 1805 about a nation quickly turning to the wrong measure for all things), you will reject the misleading reductionism of U.S. News and do your own homework. Ample information is available from public sources and on college Web sites for those who care. As Gladwell concludes his article, “who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.” U.S. News does the ranking and generates income. Wealthy colleges win through the demand created by rankings. Students and families lose by running after a potentially mismatched prize.