About Those Rankings | Just Visiting

I am not an employee of Inside Higher Ed and have precisely zero influence of what appears on its virtual pages – with the obvious exception of this blog – but nonetheless, I felt a little frisson of pride when reading Scott Jaschik’s introduction to IHE’s coverage of this year’s release of the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

The U.S. News & World Report rankings for 2023 were released today, and the top colleges are not a surprise. As in past years, Inside Higher Ed doesn’t report on the results of the rankings because of widespread concerns about the validity of ordinally ranking colleges by a single number and a sense that rankings favor wealthier institutions. (For those who are interested in the rankings themselves, we invite you to visit the magazine’s listings.)

I appreciate the principled stance of how the information is conveyed. Obviously a news organization dedicated to higher education cannot ignore the release of these rankings, but neither do they need to uncritically parrot the actual ordinal rankings as news because news they are not.

Just as I had a little burst of something like pride at seeing how IHE was treating the news, I get a little jolt of despair every time I see the leadership of a higher education institution trumpet their ranking. The number of schools and leaders I saw doing this too long to list, but I appreciated Holden Thorpe’s observation on Twitter noting that any school between #3 and #17 on last year’s list that is touting jumping up a spot is doing so without noting the reason for their rise is because “Columbia committed fraud.”

Columbia dropped to #18 following some admissions that, as accused by one of its own professors, it had provided inaccurate data in previous years of the rankings. The New York Times frames the episode this way:

“Columbia’s public humiliation raises questions for many parents and educational policymakers: Can the quality of a college be ranked by a single number, the way critics rate movies with stars? And should students choose where to go to college based on what has become a proxy for prestige?”

I think I did a full-on forehead slap at this. I understand the question is rhetorical, but, come on. Why pretend there is doubt or a dispute about whether or not the quality of a college can be ranked by a single number when in reality, there is none?

Is there an educational policymaker who sincerely believes that the quality of a college can be ranked by a single number? 

As IHE’s coverage notes, there is nothing new about schools getting caught gaming the ratings with incorrect data.  Emory University (in 2012), Claremont McKenna College (the same year) and Tulane University (in 2013) have all been previously exposed.

I personally worked at Clemson University when the president at the time, James Barker, was gripped by a mania for Clemson to climb into the Top 20 of public universities. Clemson did not submit erroneous data, but they gamed it by increasing the number of classes under 20 students in the fall, when data was reported, before bumping caps in the identical classes to 22 or 24 for the spring, adding the equivalent of an additional course of workload for those of us teaching four sections of class.

Students taking these courses in the spring were undoubtedly harmed by the practice. 

The “you’ve got to be kidding me” portion of the experience came when the provost met with non-tenure track faculty so we could be urged to go get PhDs in our spare time so Clemson would have more total faculty with terminal degrees. 

Could we then have access to the tenure track? No. A raise? Be serious. Was a terminal degree necessary for the jobs we were being asked to do? Obviously not, we already had the jobs. Would our teaching suffer when we’re pursuing these spare time PhDs that come with no promise of increased security or pay? Undoubtedly! 

Did anybody think of these things prior to floating this nonsense to the non-tenure track faculty who taught the bulk of the course offerings in the University? Ha!

On Twitter, I called the rankings meaningless, but this was an imprecise use of language. Obviously, the rankings are meaningful, in some sense, because otherwise would people who know they are methodologically worthless tout them as something to be proud of?

So the rankings have some importance in the world, but it is a mirage, perhaps even more worthless than the preseason college football rankings, which always manage to deliver what look like big upsets because the initial rankings are often based on history and vibes, rather than tangible data.

The U.S. News rankings may not be meaningless, but they are certainly without substance. This is what perhaps bugs me most, that higher education institutions are enmeshed in a system that requires them to pretend that something with substances is meaningful.

No one would mistake me for an idealist, and I am aware of the necessity for compromise to make less-than-ideal systems and circumstances work. I did teach off the tenure track for nearly 20 years, after all. 

But I do not understand the eager embrace of something people know to be non-substantive, that they also know deep down is doing harm to the mission of their universities, making them less accessible, more expensive, less focused on teaching and learning and research, more focused on marketing and enrollment management.

I know it is too much to ask for institutions en masse to decide to not participate in the U.S. News charade, but is it too much to ask for institutions to at stop fanning the flames of the forces that are ultimately going to destroy all but the wealthiest and most fortunate?

Buying into a competition for prestige that is actually predicated on wealth is not a winning hand for the vast majority of institutions who continue to play. The recent, highly necessary, action on forgiving a portion of existing student loan debt is just the latest piece of evidence showing that the current framework of post-secondary education as a private good meant to develop “human capital” is totally shot, bankrupt, kaput.

And yet, on the day of the rankings’ announcement, like a reflex, here comes the press releases filled with another round of blah blah.

Columbia ranked number #18 is no different than Columbia ranked #2. The substance of the institution has not changed, other than they are actually being honest with themselves and the world about their class sizes and the percentage of faculty with terminal degrees.

In a small way, this makes Columbia superior to last year, but sorry, there’s no prize for honest self-assessment.