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The embrace of rankings by colleges has damaged the quality of teaching and the link between higher education and democracy. The rankings game corrupts the idealism without which higher education cannot thrive. The worst consequences have been for undergraduate education, where rankings have accelerated the erosion of autonomy, ambition, innovation, and quality in colleges. Generations of students have been the victims.
The leaders of Harvard, Yale, and their peers, the wealthiest and most prestigious institutions, could have blocked the success of U.S. News & World Report‘s rankings at the start. When U.S. News, a magazine that had been trailing Time and Newsweek in readership and prestige, hit on the idea of publishing an annual issue ranking colleges in 1983, these wealthy, selective institutions responded with tacit consent. The initial rankings collated subjective “expert” opinions and translated them into numerical rankings, much as is done in figure skating but with fewer rules. They became popular and gained some public legitimacy, all without resistance from our most powerful institutions in higher education. Institutions that found themselves at the middle or bottom of the rankings were stymied; if they objected, they were regarded as sore losers. Instead, they scrambled to improve their rankings. U.S. News had hit gold, and an international competitive rankings business took inspiration from it.
The rankings became popular and gained public legitimacy, with no resistance from our most powerful institutions in higher education.
The second chance to refuse to cooperate with the rankings came in 1987, when U.S. News, sensing the vulnerability of using mere opinion, appropriated to itself the mantle of expertise and developed its own methodology based partly on numbers. The rankings would appear more scientific and objective; they could claim to be based on “facts” and data. Everyone in higher education knew that the idea of “objective” numerical rankings of colleges was nonsense — as preposterous and misleading as a ranking of churches would be — but U.S. News’s numbers game went largely unchallenged.
Objective rankings work in sports; they rely on time and measurable outcomes based on transparent rules and a single, clear goal to establish winners. Although doctors and hospitals are now also ranked, the nation seems more cautious about trusting those rankings. The easiest way to get a good record on mortality and cures is to shut out the very sick and not treat those against whom the odds are stacked. Rankings of restaurants and wines are understood as subjective, since taste in food is obviously personal. But unlike the competition for rankings in higher education, innovation and originality are rewarded in the restaurant business. In higher education, the competition for higher rankings has spurred a self-imposed uniformity based on a fictitious standard of objective quality set by a magazine’s questionable methodology.
We are a nation uncomfortable with judging experiences that cannot be reduced to standardized numerical comparisons. But education is not well-suited to such metrics. Many of its values — curiosity, exploration, contemplation, discovery — are relatively intangible, and its goals lie beyond productivity and efficiency. When in doubt about such values and goals, we take refuge behind numbered rankings, as if all of life could be framed as an Olympic sport. Faced with a dizzying array of different colleges and universities, the public, eager to secure status for their offspring, welcomed the rankings. The international-student market has come to rely on them, particularly for undergraduate education and professional schools in law, medicine, and business.
Our leading centers of research, scholarship, and teaching have been content to comply and collaborate. They abdicated the obligation to protect higher education from a pseudoscientific ranking system at odds with the fundamentally qualitative character of colleges. From 1987 on, institutional decision making became focused on securing higher rankings in U.S. News. The tail was wagging the dog, resulting in a calamity of conformity and routine.
As it turns out, many of the metrical criteria used by U.S. News and other ranking systems are at odds with best educational practice. Is being more selective a sign of quality? Selectivity, even when based exclusively on standardized tests and grades, may favor wealth and privilege more than ability. Does a high “retention” rate mean an institution of higher education is doing its job? Not necessarily. For some newer systems of ranking the “return on investment,” as calculated by future earnings by graduates, is considered as if scholarship and income are equivalent. If excellence, equity, and empathy are going to win out over superficiality, selfishness, and greed, higher education has to be judged as more than a return on investment. Helping people earn a living has always been a necessary goal, but it is hardly a sufficient measure of what education is supposed to do. How can numbers measure the impact of an education on what people believe, how they spend their time, how they pursue their lives as individuals and citizens?
Creating a productive and competitive work force will always be one of the primary goals of colleges, but what our democracy needs now from higher education is its capacity to inspire values other than that of acquiring wealth. At a moment in history where radical skepticism and prejudice have overcome confidence in reason and the rules of evidence, colleges must abandon these pseudoscientific instruments of snobbery, conformity, and invidious competition. What better time than now to end our self-imposed deference to rankings?
Our leading institutions of higher education, having failed twice to hit the ball, are back in the batter’s box. They should not strike out. The law-school rebellion against rankings has to become national and comprehensive. If learning is to flourish, the public must understand why rankings are meaningless and destructive. We need to defeat the rankings and banish the mediocrity and uniformity they brought with them.