Current Backlash May Indicate Distrust of the Rankings
For decades, schools, deans and even students have called for an overhaul of the annual U.S. News & World Report university rankings, to no avail. But in the past few months, a series of public statements from top-ranked universities has begun to finally pose a real threat to U.S. News, which has been the dominant player in the rankings industry for nearly 40 years.
In November 2022, Yale Law School, which has been listed as the top law school by U.S. News for three decades, announced it would no longer submit data for the rankings. Citing U.S. News’s discounting of public interest careers and an overemphasis on standardized testing, Dean Heather Gerken called the rankings “profoundly flawed” in a public statement. More than a dozen law schools, including those at Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, all ranked in the top four, promptly followed suit.
A few months later, the same revolt was replicated within medical schools. Harvard Medical School, No. 1 on U.S. News’s rankings of medical schools for research, announced in January 2023 it would also withdraw from the rankings, claiming they are too rigid to reflect a school’s educational mission. In the past month, more than half of the medical schools also listed in the top 20 by U.S. News additionally announced they will no longer participate with the rankings.
The new rankings methodology announced this past January by U.S. News in a recent email to law school deans fails to address many of the most fundamental flaws with its ranking system and, in many ways, compounds them. As a result, UC Law SF (formerly UC Hastings Law) will no longer provide institutional data to US News for use in its law school rankings, at least until such time as US News truly addresses the concerns that we and other law schools have long shared with them.
According to UC Law School: “The new methodology will not reflect the true excellence of a school like UC Law SF. That is because US News apparently plans to continue to apply a single cookie-cutter formula to the nation’s wide variety of law schools, without actually measuring the degree to which law schools achieve their core mission elements and without properly standardizing to account for variations in student populations, geographic regions, or law schools’ success in placement in specific law job markets.” Schools like UC Law School are concerned about equity issues.
Do you look at college rankings to decide which college to attend or where to send your kid? Stop it! It’s a waste of time and the information is not reliable. That’s the opinion of Valerie Strauss, education reporter for the Washington Post. Strauss examined the 2018 U.S. News & World Report annual rankings and concludes the relevance of the data-based rankings are questionable. It’s a case of “garbage in, garbage out.” [My words, not hers]. In other words, the devil is in the details.
This isn’t the first time I have blogged about these issues. In a previous post, I examined the problems with the rankings. One problem is those who do the ranking decide on the criteria to use. It’s hard to imagine schools are on a level playing field with respect to these rankings. Bias is inevitable.
The criteria used from my point of view fail to consider some of the most important ingredients in judging the worth of a college. For example, how many hours of direct contact exist between faculty and students. If you go to a college where teaching assistants teach a lot of the mega-size classes, that’s not a good thing. Students need to learn from their professors, many of whom have great knowledge of their field of study.
Another fault, I believe, is it doesn’t (and really can’t) measure work ethic. Do students going to the highest ranked colleges have a strong work ethic upon graduation? Isn’t this a key ingredient in success in life or, more important, in one’s career?
Enough said about that. Let’s look at the ranking criteria used by U.S. News:
- Graduation Rates (35%). This is in a six-year period. It’s not clear why six years are used and whether it might skew the data.
- Faculty Resources (20%). This looks at class size, faculty salary, faculty with the highest degrees in their fields, student-faculty ratio. There’s some bias here towards the richest universities but does that make them the best?
- Expert Opinion (20%). Supposedly, this is from “top academics.” I consider myself a top academic; no one asked me. Enough said.
- Financial Resources (10%). Another benefit for the rich institutions.
- Student Excellence (10%). A new part of this ranking is “social-mobility indicators,” Don’t ask.
- Alumni Giving (5%). See my comments in items 2 and 4.
Lawsuits Over Rankings
If you still need convincing that these ranking are worthless, in January 2019, it was announced that Temple University settled a class action lawsuit from students who were outraged to learn that the business school’s top ranking for its online MBA program by U.S. News was based on false data. The university will pay $5.5 million to those who were students in that program and several other master’s degrees for false and misleading information.
On December 23, 2022, it was announced that the University of Southern California was sued for allegedly withholding data in an attempt to inflate its national U.S, News ranking, which misled students on the quality of its programs.
The best way to gage the value of a college or university education is to speak to graduates about their experiences. Another valuable tool could be social media posts about the schools. Finally, high school counselors can provide valuable information since some of their graduates have probably gone to schools that current students are considering. They can provide an independent point of view.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 7, 2023. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Steve’s activities by checking out his website at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow me on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.