Yale Law School made the startling announcement last week that it will no longer participate in the influential rankings released annually by US News & World Report. Given the outsized importance placed on rankings by prospective applicants and alumni, Yale’s decision sent shockwaves through the legal profession and, indeed, higher education as a whole. But the law schools at Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford, and Michigan quickly followed suit. Will the universities they belong to join the boycott? Will other colleges and trade schools do the same? Could this be the beginning of the end for college rankings?
I hope so.
Since its inception in 1983, US News’ college rankings have grown into a giant juggernaut. They have withstood decades of scathing criticism — from journalists, university presidents, and the US Secretary of Education — that the methodology ignores the distinctive character of individual schools, leading institutions to abandon priorities and principles in favor of tweaks that move them up a notch or two .
US News has rejected repeated demonstrations that its ratings system, based on unconfirmed data, can be tampered with. Columbia University submitted inflated statistics and won second place in the 2022 list of “Best National Universities” — just the latest and most visible example of this phenomenon.
Although almost all professional educators despise the rankings, few underdog schools had dared to back down until last week. US News effectively penalized them by creating their own stats to plug into the ranking formula. After Reed College (of which I was once President) retired in 1995, its ranking plummeted from the top quartile to the bottom quartile. Columbia, which was under fire for its apparent discrepancies in reporting, opted not to submit data for the latest ranking and its position fell from No. 2 to No. 18.
Reed College managed to weather its decline – even prosper – by proudly displaying its rebellious attitude as a sign of its passionate commitment to intellectual rigor. The impact of Columbia’s recent downgrade remains to be seen. But two students have already filed lawsuits alleging that the university’s inflated ranking score prompted them to enroll under false pretenses.
It seems that most schools are afraid of falling down their rankings, and with good reason. Academic research consistently shows that a significant drop in placements one year correlates with a weaker pool of applicants the next year. As a college president once told me, “I hate hierarchy, but unilateral disarmament is suicide.”
But something tells me that this time it’s different.
It’s a lot harder to fire Harvard, Yale, and the other top-flight law schools than, say, Reed College or other former ranking evaders like St. John’s College. These law schools are at the pinnacle of prestige, wealth, and influence. Your actions are impossible to ignore.
And their reasons for boycotting US News aren’t just quibbles about ranking methodology or unreliable statistics. The deans make strong claims that the formula used by US News rewards wealth and privilege by subtly penalizing law schools that try to give people from less privileged backgrounds access to the legal profession and prepare their graduates for careers in public service.
Some observers have speculated that this statement may hide other motives, such as a desire to sidestep the expected Supreme Court decision prohibiting racial preferences in admissions. Or that Harvard (No. 4) and Berkeley (No. 9) are simply dissatisfied with their current rankings, which would hardly explain Yale’s top position. However, the risk of being penalized by US news is such that I think we need to take the Deans at their word and therefore turn our attention to the merits of their objections rather than to speculate on their motives.
And the law school deans’ argument also applies to undergraduate college rankings, for most reasons.
These rankings rely on various “student selectivity” measures, such as: B. the standardized test scores for class entry and, for some graduate schools, the school acceptance rate. The rankings have encouraged admissions agencies to give more weight to test scores, expand mandatory early-decision programs, and sharply increase merit-based (rather than means-tested) financial assistance — practices that wealthier applicants prefer, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.
The “outcome” measures used by US News, such as overall graduation rates or, for graduate schools, postgraduate employment success, further encourage schools to admit applicants who are already programmed for success. And while many schools want to encourage more students to pursue careers in the public sector, achieving that goal can cost them points in the US news rating system, since the salaries for these jobs are relatively low.
Another problem with the rankings is that they equate academic quality with institutional wealth (measured in terms of financial resources per student, faculty salaries, and the like). This encourages admission preferences for full-paying students, legacies and children of wealthy donors, which in turn helps fuel the spending and donation arms race already affecting higher education. At the same time, the ranking formulas do not recognize schools for their needs-based financial aid spending, although US News does give colleges some credit for the high graduation rates of students who have received state Pell scholarships.
Even US News’ belated attempt to reward schools for low student debt burdens may backfire by encouraging them to take on more high-income students who don’t have to borrow.
Some educators say that US News — for all its shortcomings — is still the best available measure of institutional performance. But I hope many others will publicly acknowledge that the time has come to break the habit of US news.
As schools lower down the pecking order stop taking the rankings seriously, applicants can create their own criteria for excellence, digging information out of guidebooks, government databases, and school websites. In other words, college and law school applicants need to do their own homework instead of relying on a journal to do it for them.
Meanwhile, educators, freed from the straitjacket of US news, are freed to pursue their distinctive educational missions: set their own priorities; to focus more intensely on what the students are learning, which now carries no weight in the calculus of rank; taking risks with more promising applicants from less privileged backgrounds; and to prepare graduates for a broader range of fulfilling careers. In short, they will return to the historical function of higher education as an engine of social mobility and service to the common good.
Colin Diver is a past dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a past president of Reed College. He is the author of Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It.”
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