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25 Nov Posted by in Academics, Observations | 1 comment

The recent news that yet another institution has provided inaccurate data for the US News and World Report survey—however inadvertently—is yet another reminder of the importance of not taking any of the surveys too literally. Several cases of inaccurate submissions, both for the main US News ranking and for the law school version, suggest how overinflated the specter of rankings has become.

My personal guess is that these cases are less unusual than one might imagine. (I almost said tip of the iceberg, but that probably would be excessive and in any event global warming calls this whole image into question.) I have always been particularly skeptical of some of the superhuman student retention claims, which at the least suggest some flexibility in deciding when, officially, a new freshman actually begins.

Of course, we’ve been lamenting the rankings for some time—particularly those of us who don’t score as well as we would like. Inaccuracies and inflated importance are only part of the story. So are the categories omitted altogether, such as student diversity or global programs.

But now, in the present climate, there’s an even more pressing reason to call for reform: the extent to which the leading rankings reward excessive spending. US News, notoriously, relies on funding available per student, along with the related criterion of faculty salary levels, more than on any other quantifiable factors. This is obviously why the rich privates routinely end up on top, along with only a handful of privileged public places with big endowments. The assumption, clearly, is that places with the most money to spend do the best educational job, and I would be the last to deny some probable correlation at least to a point.
At present, however, with new attention being focused on cost reduction and affordability, it seems imperative to develop a more complex category of measurement that gives greater allowance to accessibility and successful allocation of resources, and not just to the largest bank accounts.
A top category of the very rich will survive, of course, and perhaps the rating systems might simply treat them separately, allowing them to fight among themselves. But for the larger run of good institutions, including the bulk of the top publics, the current emphasis on sheer budget size, and not effectiveness, is truly counterproductive, athwart the dominant emphases in both federal and state discourse.
So let’s promote a more appropriate balance in criteria, and if US News refuses to play ball (as has been the case with other protests to date), let’s promote some clearer alternatives—alternatives that aim, after all, at a combination of quality and efficiency that most students and parents ought to be searching for.