College officials often use colorful language when discussing U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of colleges. Over the years, I’ve heard the list described as “corrosive,” “immoral,” and “real evil.” Some of the other terms aren’t printable.
Naturally, those who publish rival rankings also have choice words for the Best Colleges guide. In a news release, Washington Monthly’s editor, Paul Glastris, described his own publication’s college rankings, just published on Monday, as an answer to U.S. News, which, he wrote, “relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.”
Washington Monthly’s rankings take into account such factors as graduation rates and the proportion of low-income students a college enrolls (the University of California at San Diego once again took the top spot on this year’s national list). In short, the magazine’s rankings are heavier on measures of outcomes, lighter on the input variables that underpin other rankings systems.
The publication’s formula includes many of the criteria President Obama mentioned last week in his proposal for a new college-rating system. Maybe, just maybe, the vast college-rankings industry is at a crossroads. Perhaps future consumers will care more about measures of “social mobility” than about measures of selectivity.
The question is: Do families really want something they don’t already have? On Monday I posed that question to a half-dozen college counselors as part of a quick, totally unscientific survey. The consensus: Generally speaking, the families who put serious stock in college rankings worship happily at the altar of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige. “Not going to change—ever, ever, ever,” wrote one counselor. “People want to see Ivy League colleges at the top.”
While thinking about the strange power of prestige, I was reminded of this 2012 blog post. It describes how some students at George Washington University reacted last year when U.S. News moved the institution into its “unranked list,” following news of misreported data (previously, the university was ranked 51st). Said one student: “A lot of people pay a hell of a lot of money to come here, thinking they will get a degree from a top 50 university. … It gives us a bit of pride, a bit of swagger.”
A while back, I wrote that the U.S. News rankings were “Coke in a world without Pepsi.” What do you think, readers? Will that ever change? Is the nation thirsting for alternative means of defining and comparing institutional quality? Could another set of rankings designed to measure how well colleges serve the public ever compete with the human will to swagger?