Steinman ’19: The vicious cycle of college rankings

By
staff columnist
Thursday, September 22, 2016

The U.S. News and World Report College Rankings were released earlier this week, and with them came the associated stress and uproar. Rankings like these, put out annually not only by U.S. News but also by Forbes, Niche and other publications, tackle an impossible task: to rank a set of institutions that differ wildly in terms of quantitative measures like selectivity, price, size and endowment but also qualitatively in terms of geography, culture, social life, extracurricular activities and most of what we would define as crucial to the college experience. If these rankings existed in a vacuum, they would be at worst misguided and misleading. But the competition that universities and high school seniors alike face means that the very act of ranking colleges changes the nature of the college application and acceptance process and even has the potential to shift a university’s focus away from what matters most.

U.S News uses a complicated metric that incorporates graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, selectivity, financial resources (i.e. amount spent per student), graduate school acceptances and, most confusing of all, “undergraduate academic reputation.” This final metric, which accounts for the plurality, at 22.5 percent, of U.S. News’s rankings, allows academics and administrators at other schools to rank, on a scale of one to five, their perception of a school’s reputation. As I dug deeper into it, this method of ranking schools became more and more confusing. After all, the U.S. News rankings are no Buzzfeed listicle. What began as a minor piece published by a weekly magazine reached over 10 million viewers in 2011 and has indeed outlasted the now-defunct print magazine. The rankings are no longer the end product of an institution’s quest for self-improvement, but rather the catalyst for that quest.

Colleges depend on their reputation and the prestige of their name to garner applications from students worldwide. Where does reputation and prestige stem from? Lots of places, but the ranking put out by U.S. News is one of the most accessible and well-known. And how, to refresh our memories, does U.S. News determine its ranking? In large part by undergraduate academic reputation, which is itself, of course, little more than a perception of a school’s reputation and prestige. A vicious cycle is thus created. College rankings have created a closed loop, which rewards schools who play the game while undervaluing many, many others.

I write this not without bias, of course. Brown took the 14th spot in this year’s rankings overall and the fourth spot for undergraduate teaching. There is more to look for in a school than undergraduate teaching, from cost to infrastructure to the intangibles that make a school right for one person and not for another. But within the limited metric of U.S. News, which can’t account for these intangibles anyway, I couldn’t help but be (selfishly) surprised at the 10-point disparity between the teaching and overall rankings. After all, if we aren’t looking for the school that offers the best teaching, what are we looking for?

As it happens, the methodology for the undergraduate teaching ranking came from a survey of top academics around the nation who were asked to pick the schools that offered “faculty with an unusually strong commitment to undergraduate teaching.” These are, according to the website, the same academics who are asked to pick the schools with the so-called best reputation. In other words, the same people are weighing in on two completely different values: one relevant to the education students receive and one that only perpetuates the rat race that keeps the U.S. News rankings kicking. It’s the latter value that generates web traffic and anxiety in everyone from college presidents to 17-year-olds fumbling through the Common App. At a school like Brown, this is merely unfortunate. At a school like Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which places 79th in Best Colleges and second in undergraduate teaching, between Princeton and Yale, this is an outrage. I don’t know enough about Miami University to quantify what makes it 79th overall, but if they do offer the second best undergraduate teaching in the nation, it’s hard to argue that they’re getting the credit they deserve for it. By keeping the focus on vaguely defined and self-perpetuating measures like “prestige,” U.S. News and similar publications create a culture that blinds administrations, students and applicants alike to what really matters most in a college education.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.