‘Breaking Ranks’ is a new book attacking ‘US News’

Steven S. Koblik gave the following presidents of Reed College a gift: In 1995, he declared that the college would no longer cooperate with US News and World Report on his academic standing.

Colin Diver, who succeeded Koblik, writes that when he arrived at Reed in 2002, he thought, “I am no longer subject to the tyranny of college rankings. I don’t need to worry about a news magazine telling me what to do.

In a book that will appear tomorrow, Breaking the Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It (Johns Hopkins University Press), Diver describes his experience as a university president (and previously as dean of law at the University of Pennsylvania) dealing with rankings. He absolutely agrees with the decisions made by Reed regarding the ranking. And he thinks rankings aren’t going anywhere, but colleges can and should fight them.

Diver writes that Reed’s “rebellious stance” on American News was part of what had drawn him to Reed in the first place. “I understood that to be a statement that Reed saw education as a path to a truly fulfilling life, not just a ticket to a well-paying job.”

In an interview, he said his perspective on the rankings came almost as much from his experience as dean at law as from his experience as president. (He is currently the Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Emeritus Professor of Law and Economics at Penn.)

Why object to rankings

Diver begins his book with an examination of why he considers college rankings unsafe.

In a chapter titled “Apples, Oranges, and Fridges: Should Colleges Be Ranked?” he explains how consumer reports reviewed the refrigerators, noting (with praise) how it does real-world testing on them.

“It makes perfect sense to rate refrigerators,” the book says.

On colleges? Not so much, he writes.

But first he acknowledges the reasons why people might value college rankings. He notes that college is “one of the most complex and expensive purchases” one can make. And bachelor’s degrees from various colleges generally require the same number of credits. For residential colleges, students might think they are buying the same product, with fees for residence halls, food, etc.

But it also notes reasons for not ranking colleges.

Giving examples, he writes: “Chad is a conscientious student from a working class family who is good at carpentry and longs for the thrill of a crowded football stadium. Tanya is the only African American student in her high school class to have taken both physics and advanced calculus. The third child of a devoutly Catholic family, Maureen serves as student government president and captain of her tennis team. After several more examples, Diver asks, “In a world of such diverse histories and such human variety, is there a single ‘best’ college? Are there even 500 best colleges? »

But there are other reasons to question the rankings, writes Diver. “Unlike apples and oranges, or refrigerators and cars, college is not just a short-term consumer activity. It is a long-term investment in human capacity – the ability to do financially, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually rewarding work; teaching oneself and others how to learn, adjust and adapt; analyze, reason, evaluate and create; appreciate beauty, ingenuity, order, complexity and subtlety.

A focus on “American news”

The diver concentrates on American News, he writes, as it dominates undergraduate rankings in the United States. (He comments on others in the industry – more on that later in the article.)

And he shares stories that might cast doubt on the credibility of American News. “In 1999, the American News the statisticians made an obscure change in how the magazine factored spending per student into its overall score calculation,” Diver writes. As a result, the following year, the California Institute of Technology jumped from ninth place in the rankings to first place. “Oops! The publishers made short work of this statistical adjustment, and Caltech reinstalled itself in its “proper” position in the pecking order, below the eternal top dogs (Universities of Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Stanford)… Imagine a candidate who, in 2000, chose Caltech because it was ranked 1st over, say, Princeton (then 4th.) A year later, that person wakes up to find that both schools have swapped places.At the time of graduation, Princeton is still 1st, while Caltech has dropped to 8th.

One of the things about American News What particularly bothers Diver is that he punishes colleges that resist him. He notes that American News responded to Reed’s approach not by “simply excluding Reed” from the rankings, but by giving him the lowest scores on the subjective parts of the methodology for national liberal arts colleges. Reed, who had appeared all the way to ninth place, found himself in the bottom quartile after taking a position against the leaderboard. The late Alvin Sanoff, then in charge of the rankings, admitted the change was “more punitive than logical”.

Diver writes, “His choice of words is instructive: punishment is treatment usually administered by someone in a position of authority.

At the same time, he notes that the University of Chicago has for years lagged (at No. 15) in American News rankings, at least relative to the reputation of its faculty. Robert Zimmer, then president of Chicago, launched a campaign in 2006 to attract more candidates, based on American News supporting this strategy. It worked, growing Chicago’s applicant pool from 9,100 to 34,600 in 2020. Chicago is now generally in the top 10.

“Many observers, particularly among Chicago’s old guard, grumbled that this achievement came at the sacrifice of the university’s uncompromising intellectual standards,” Diver writes.

Faculties of law

The diver also spends time on the American News ranking of law schools. And here he confesses to playing the American News game when he was dean of law school at Penn.

At the time, American News calculated the average of the 25th percentile score on the Law School Admissions Test and the 75th percentile score. “My Dean of Admissions would sometimes rush into my office, gushing with excitement over an exceptionally talented applicant – perhaps a person of color or an older student who had overcome tremendous life challenges. I listened sympathetically and invariably said, “yes, as long as your prized candidate doesn’t bring down our 25th percentile.” Shame on me.”

Another time, when he was at Reed, he worked closely with a student. “I had spent the university year supervising his graduation thesis project on a subject of constitutional law. The finished product was superb, of a quality equivalent to most student writing published by major law journals,” writes Diver. “I was on good terms with the dean of the law school he was aspiring to attend and offered to say a kind word to him. No sooner had I finished my spiel than my dean friend shot back, ‘What a is his LSAT score?’ My response elicited precisely the response I expected: “Well, that’s below our 25th percentile. I’m going to have to put him on the waitlist.”

Diver thinks law school and many undergraduate colleges make decisions based on whatever American News wanna.

Making a student financial aid decision based on some definition of “merit” (often high test scores) is another practice Diver dislikes and links to rankings. Undergraduate colleges and law schools give money to students who could afford to enroll unaided to capture their high SAT or LSAT scores, he writes.

The future

The rankings, at least those of American News, “are here to stay for a while,” Diver said. Applying to college is complicated, and there are people who like the rankings, even if they don’t understand its flaws, he added.

So what are the possibilities for reform?

Diver offers four recommendations for colleges:

  • Do not complete reputation surveys of your peers. “Educators need to be honest with themselves about the limits of their knowledge about other institutions,” he said.
  • Do not post rankings that you consider illegitimate. “If a particular ranking, such as that published by American Newsis fundamentally inconsistent with your values, so don’t brag about your score on it.
  • Celebrate rankings that truly reflect your values. Berea College or City College at the City University of New York could release a ranking focused on educating low-income students, he says.
  • Give everyone equal access to your data. “Educators should not give anyone, including specific college ranking organizations, privileged access to any or all of their data.”

What the rankings say

Of course, there are rankings beyond American News. While the book focuses on American News, Diver recognizes that there are other classifications. Usually he sees them the same way he sees American News– critically.

One of the other rankings is done by Times Higher Educationwho bought in january Inside Higher Education. The book briefly discusses Times Higher Educationranking of American colleges he achieves with The Wall Street Journal. (The book says it largely ignores world rankings.)

“Despite their different objectives and methodologies, most of these publications [including Times Higher Education/The Wall Street Journal] consistently gave the same cast of Ivy-plus characters the highest rating,” Diver writes.

Ellie Bothwell, Rankings Editor of Times Higher Educationsaid his publication had decided not to comment.

American News released this statement: “We haven’t seen the book, but we know that students and their families find significant value in our rankings. We strive to provide them with data and information to help them make important decisions, using the ranking as a factor in their college search. As always, we continually welcome feedback. »

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