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The Lord of the Rankings, Exposed

“Syracuse? Yes, I stopped for coffee there once driving back to my mom’s house in Canada. There were no students there, because it was Christmas. But wait! My cousin went to Syracuse, and he had a good time.”

“So you would rate it based on that?”

“Let’s give Syracuse some love. 4.0!”

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell, in his new season of the Pushkin/Revisionist History podcast, interviewing a university president going incognito as “Dean” to expose the questionable methodology of US News and World Report College Rankings. I wrote a blogpost about the unreliability of rankings in general in March, but Gladwell’s detective work is humorous as well as possibly shocking.

One might think the USNWR “peer rating” methodology involved some depth, knowledge, or experience, but that would be incorrect. As explained by Robert Morse, the originator and chief data strategist of the college rankings, three surveys are sent to the provost, president and enrollment manager/admissions dean of each of the 388 National Colleges and 200 Liberal Arts Colleges. These three individuals rank their peer institututions on a scale of one (serious problems) to five (amazing). When Gladwell asks if these judges necessarily know about the schools they rank, Morse equivocates:

“It’s a good question. Their view of undergraduate education is an aggregate of where these schools stand in the marketplace.”

“Do they necessarily know?”

“I don’t know. Some have knowledge, some don’t.”

Peer review carries the most weight in the rankings, and as we see in the above Syracuse ranking, it can be irrelevant. Other variables, like graduation rate, often have less to do with school quality and effort than with the difficulties low-income students face in completing their education. Gladwell illustrates further how schools doing great work with students, such as Rowan University in New Jersey and Dillard University in Louisiana, get low peer rankings for the reasons above.

These rankings fool families into creating baseless colleges lists based on the rankers’ whims rather than knowledge. US News launched the College Rankings as a marketing strategy to gain ground on Time and Newsweek back in 1983. The rankings concept was irresistible, and though many other rankings exist today, none rival USN in popularity.

Listen to this podcast if you are a high school parent, interested in higher education, or simply enjoy seeing the mask pulled off this respected arbiter of “the best colleges.”


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