Politics & Policy

They Protest Too Much

The U.S. News college rankings fill a void.

The presidents of around 80 liberal-arts colleges gathered in Maryland last week to grumble about one of their favorite love-to-hate-it subjects: the numerical rankings of colleges and universities published annually by U.S. News & World Report. The outgoing chair of the so-called Annapolis Group, St. John’s College president Christopher B. Nelson, went so far as to tell The Chronicle of Higher Education that a key element of the magazine’s methodology is “real evil.”

On campus, administrators usually reserve such harsh language for speech-code violations and lacrosse players. Now there’s talk of a boycott. Last month, a dozen college presidents issued a letter saying that they won’t cooperate with the magazine’s requests for information. Since then, about three-dozen more have signed on. The list includes the heads of Lafayette, Ohio Wesleyan, and San Francisco State University. “Why should we help U.S. News sell magazines?” asked an administrator at Dickinson, another boycotter, in the Washington Post.

Professors and administrators are surely under no obligation to help anybody sell magazines. Complaining about healthy circulation numbers nevertheless carries at least a whiff of anti-capitalism. Indeed, the boycott is organized by the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that seeks to “overcome commercial interference in college admissions.”

Before blasting U.S. News, however, perhaps the Education Conservancy and its allies should consider why the rankings have become such a sensation since they were first published in 1983: The magazine’s editors and writers aren’t interfering with higher education so much as responding to a consumer demand for more information about it.

The demand exists because colleges and universities are among the least accountable institutions in American life. Private companies must report profits and losses to their shareholders. Even K-12 public schools, which the government protects from genuine competition, increasingly post standardized test scores on websites, allowing parents to assess their performance. The higher-education sector faces nothing similar. It remains shrouded in mystique — and it would like to keep things that way, so that it may continue to live in its cozy cocoon of tenure, sabbaticals, and parents who are willing to foot exorbitant tuition bills.

It certainly isn’t hard to poke holes in the way U.S. News compiles its rankings. Does a school’s rate of alumni giving, heavily influenced by nostalgia, have anything to do with the current quality of instruction? Does a relatively well-paid faculty lead to better learning? Then there’s the hugely controversial “peer assessment” category, which accounts for 25 percent of each school’s mark. Why should a Bowdoin College provost, who perhaps has never set foot on the campus of the University of Florida, have anything to say about what goes on in the classrooms of Gainesville?

Despite this, the U.S. News rankings indisputably measure something — and something is better than nothing, which is why parents of high-school students pore over the magazine’s tables and charts. They also buy college guides, visit campuses, and check out other rankings, such as Hispanic magazine’s “Top 25 Colleges for Latinos” and the John Templeton Foundation’s list of “Colleges that Encourage Character Development.” This is rational behavior for people on the verge of spending more huge sums of money on the education of a single child. Like wise investors, they want to know if they’re getting a good deal.

As it happens, many of them probably aren’t. Last year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship,” a report on how well colleges and universities teach students about civics. It tested 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools on their knowledge of history, government, and economics. The results were sobering: On average, seniors scored just 1.5 percent better than freshman. At some schools, such as Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, they actually scored lower. ISI labeled this phenomenon “negative learning.”

Several members of the Annapolis Group have indicated that if they quit cooperating with U.S. News, they may collaborate in developing a website that lets prospective applicants learn about professor-student ratios and the like. That certainly won’t do any harm. But if colleges and universities truly want to beat the U.S. News rankings, then they should outclass it in the marketplace with something better.

The main problem with the U.S. News approach is that apart from weighing freshman retention and six-year graduation rates, its rankings don’t measure the results of a college education. How many students land good jobs shortly after receiving their diplomas? How many go on to earn graduate degrees? How many simply know more?

This is not the fault of U.S. News. Its number crunchers no doubt would love to get their hands on such information. Yet the data either do not exist or they are suppressed. The ISI study, for all of its robustness, is limited by subject matter and doesn’t evaluate every school. Two other assessments — the Indiana University-run National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the foundation-supported Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) — seek to measure the personal development of undergraduates and the acquisition of critical-thinking skills. Yet the public never learns the results, unless the schools that employ the NSSE or the CLA for their own internal purposes choose to release them. Most don’t.

That’s unfortunate but also understandable: Such data would invite scrutiny far more intense than what schools now experience when the U.S. News rankings come out. College presidents certainly don’t want the public to become familiar with terms such as “negative learning.”

Higher education devotes a large portion of its resources to testing and grading students, so its unwillingness to publish useful performance appraisals is more than a little ironic. As long as it continues to refuse, however, the market will try to fill the void — and parents and students will quite reasonably turn to proxies such as the one provided by U.S. News.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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