If you thought recent, highly-publicized decisions by several leading law and medical schools to boycott the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings were going to spell the end of such rankings, think again. They’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.
This week saw U.S. News fire back at the growing list of its legal and medical education critics, with strongly worded defenses of its rankings and accusations that elite law schools object to the rankings because they “are something they can’t control and they don’t want to be held accountable by an independent third party.”
That claim was contained in an opinion piece by Eric J. Gertler, the executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News & World Report, that was published February 28 in the Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Gertler defended his company’s rankings, which he said is one of the few places where students can find “accurate, comprehensive information that empowers students to compare institutions and identify the factors that matter most to them,” adding that the publication rejects “our critics’ paternalistic view that students are somehow incapable of discerning for themselves from this information which school is the best fit.”
Mr. Gertler pointed out that the majority of law and medical schools were continuing to cooperate with the data collection process used for the rankings, despite the boycotts by the elite schools. And he suggested that the reason those elites were objecting is because the Supreme Court might prohibit affirmative action in college admissions. Consequently, he added, “some law deans are already exploring ways to sidestep any restrictive ruling by reducing their emphasis on test scores and grades—criteria used in our rankings.”
That wasn’t the only skirmish on the rankings front last week. On Tuesday, Colorado College announced that it was withdrawing from U.S. News college ranking because “it privileges criteria that are antithetical to our values and our aspirational goal.” The college’s statement also stated, “we will no longer perpetuate and be complicit with a system that encourages applicants to evaluate schools based on a biased ranking using opaque criteria that are associated with wealth and privilege.”
Colorado College’s action was significant because it extended the recent backlash against the influential rankings beyond those by law and medical schools to include a highly regarded liberal arts college. (The Rhode Island School of Design had withdrawn from the undergraduate rankings earlier in February.)
Then on Wednesday, at a conference of educators held at Harvard and jointly organized by the Harvard and Yale law schools, U. S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona called on institutions to “stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report.”
In the conference’s keynote address, Cardona laid some of the blame for inequities in higher education on ranking systems, like those of U.S. News.
“Rankings discourage institutions with the largest endowments and greatest capacity to enroll and graduate more underserved students from doing so because it may hurt their selectivity,” he said. “Instead, the most life-changing higher education opportunities go to young people who already have every socioeconomic advantage.”
Cardona continued, “rankings have created an unhealthy obsession with selectivity. He urged the attendees that “it’s time to focus on what truly matters: delivering value and upward mobility.”
Cardona then made this request to the audience: “Tell your colleagues across higher education that they set the agenda, not some for-profit magazine. Tell them to admit more students of color, admit more Pell Grant recipients. Admit them. Enroll them. Support them. And propel them to graduation day and rewarding careers. If it costs you a spot on the annual rankings, then wear it like a badge of honor!”
U.S. News was ready. In an open letter to Cardona prior to his remarks, the publication advised him that if wanted to leave a lasting impact on students, he should “require more data, not less.”
“With nearly 40 years of experience and expertise in collecting and reporting on data from thousands of educational institutions, U.S. News is a trusted authority in compiling complex information and presenting it in a clear and accessible manner to students and the general public. Our rankings help aspiring students as they take their first step in ensuring their career opportunities, earning potential and quality of life,” the letter said.
The letter continued, “as one of the co-founders of the Common Data Set, U.S. News has been at the forefront of developing standardized methods of data collection that have made large swaths of data available to the general public.” U.S. News said that it was regrettable that “not all schools make their data readily available to the general public,” charging that while law schools are required to report extensive data about their institutions to the American Bar Association, they often disclose only some of that information on their own websites.
The letter concluded by calling on Cardona to “use your platform and voice to demand that all schools – including elite law schools – provide open access to all of their undergraduate and graduate school data, using a common data set.”
Of course, the public relations campaign from U.S. News will not end the ongoing debate about the value and fairness of college rankings. Critics will continue to attack the methodology, point to misplaced priorities, complain that some indicators are too easily gamed, and argue that such rankings either distort or ignore important educational values. In the case of the law schools at least, U.S. News was quick to indicate that it would make changes to address some of these criticisms.
But last week also revealed one other certainty – U.S. News is not going to quietly fold its tent and abandon one of its profitable publications. Its institutional rankings are here to stay a while longer. Bank on it.
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