If you have read my previous blogs, you can appreciate why I am so critical of popular “best-college” rankings such as those published by U.S. News & World Report. But you may be thinking that there is not much you can do about them. Rankings seem to be a fixture of the higher educational universe — a force, like gravity, that we may not like, but we must simply live with.
Having served as the president of Reed College — a celebrated “rankings rebel” — I know otherwise. There are steps that educators can take to combat the seductions and distortions of college rankings.
My best advice is simply to ignore the rankings altogether. Start every workday remembering the unique character of your institution. Do not focus on where you stand, or wish you stood, in someone else’s beauty contest. Concentrate instead on the intentions of your institution’s founders, the lessons of its history, and the possibilities of its future evolution. Ask yourself what the attainment of your school’s mission really entails and what it truly requires. Then charge ahead in pursuit of that goal.
I realize, of course, that most educators will find it unrealistic to ignore the best-college seduction altogether. Like a bad penny, your institution’s magic number will keep popping up in conversations with trustees, fellow administrators, alumni, donors, students, and perhaps even next-door neighbors. So, my backup counsel is to consider undertaking what I call the four stages of rankings withdrawal.
Stage One: Don’t Fill Out Peer Reputation Surveys
The most modest act of withdrawal is simply to throw the U.S. News annual peer-assessment survey (and others like it from other rankers) into the wastebasket. Educators need to be honest with themselves about the limits of their knowledge regarding the hundreds of other institutions they are asked to rate. To be sure, most presidents and deans know a few things about many other schools. But no educators know enough about more than a handful of them to provide reliable comparative assessments of their overall academic quality. The one thing most survey respondents do know about other schools is their previous position in the rankings, which explains why peer assessments are little more than a self-perpetuating echo chamber.
Stage Two: Don’t Publicize Rankings You Consider Illegitimate
The second stage of withdrawal is to refuse to publicize how your school fares in any assessment that you don’t respect. If a particular ranking is fundamentally incompatible with your values, then don’t brag about your score on it. I realize that many people consider the annual release of the best-college listings as newsworthy. A college or university that boasts about where it appears in, say, the latest U.S. News publication might argue that it is merely reporting on an important event in the world of higher education. Really? Schools have a choice of which items of consequence to mention on their website and which ones to ignore. Most institutions that publicize their improved ranking number in one year remain curiously silent when it declines in the following cycle. Aren’t both events equally newsworthy?
Furthermore, by highlighting the results of a particular publication, you are implicitly endorsing its legitimacy. Suppose, for example, that your institution professes to be truly dedicated to promoting racial and ethnic diversity. Celebrating your position on a listing, such as the one published by U.S. News, that gives zero weight to that characteristic undercuts your own professed values. If you adhere to what you say in your mission statement about the centrality of, say, intellectual rigor, or social mobility, or preparation for a fulfilling life, then don’t legitimize assessments that are at odds with those goals.
Stage Three: Celebrate Rankings That Truly Reflect Your Values
Refusing to publicize rankings you consider antithetical to your values does not, of course, imply boycotting all rankings. If a particular assessment captures a quality that dovetails with your school’s distinctive mission, you should go ahead and celebrate it. For example, Reed College has traditionally publicized rankings of colleges based on future PhD productivity, as an indicator of the college’s intense focus on its students’ intellectual development. Similarly, Spelman College might draw attention to its standing among historically Black institutions or women’s colleges. City College of New York might cite a ranking of schools based on their contributions to social mobility.
As I experienced at Reed, selectively highlighting mission-centric rankings doesn’t close you off from a national audience; it merely helps you emphasize what is truly distinctive about your institution. And, by backing up your professed values with concrete actions, you send a powerful message to a generation deeply cynical about the credibility of America’s higher educational institutions.
Stage Four: Give Everyone Equal Access to Your Data
Information is the lifeblood of education — the essential foundation for the discovery, understanding, and transmission of knowledge. So, too, must it be the vital factor in institutional choices for every would-be college student. Educators have a professional obligation to provide accurate, comprehensive, and current information about their schools, including both favorable and unfavorable aspects of those institutions. Fortunately, today much of that data is required by the U.S. Department of Education and is readily available on its websites. Beyond that baseline, colleges and universities should participate in the Common Data Set by filling out its annual questionnaire and making their submissions easily accessible on their web pages — not buried, as they too often are, under three or four layers of website architecture. And, of course, institutions should publish additional information specifically tailored to their distinctive missions.
All of this information should be freely and readily available to everyone, on an equal basis. Educators should not give anyone — including specific college rankings organizations — privileged access to any portion of their data. To me, this means that they should not fill out the annual U.S. News statistical questionnaire. If you don’t hand-deliver information to the editors, they will have to make the effort to dig it out, just as all the other commercial rankers and college guides do. If you make it easier for U.S. News to rank your school than, say, Money or Washington Monthly, you are implicitly saying that the former’s methodology is more trustworthy or informative.
Refusing to fill out the U.S. News questionnaire will not, of course, spare your school from being graded. The editors will go ahead, with or without your complicity, and rate you anyway. And, yes, they might even try to punish you, as U.S. News has done over the years to rebellious colleges like Hampshire, Reed, St. John’s, and Sarah Lawrence. Instead of fearing such treatment, you should view that “punishment” as a badge of honor — and publicly celebrate it. If a larger number of mainstream higher educational institutions ceased to cooperate with U.S. News, I suspect that the magazine would stop disciplining those who refuse to respond.
In recent years, the number of non-respondents to U.S. News’s annual statistical questionnaire has risen to 17%, and the number of non-respondents to its peer assessment survey has risen to 66%. These numbers give me a sense of hope. So does the growing recognition of higher education’s responsibility to address the grotesque levels of social and economic inequality in America. When the elite institutions stop equating educational excellence with prestige and wealth, the rankings will cease to rule both them and us. And higher education can get back to the business of educating, inspiring, and uplifting.
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