My friend Rob took as few classes as possible at Stanford. He had top-notch SAT scores and high-school grades, and he was smart enough to graduate even if he was less at ease in the library than party-hopping in a caveman suit. We took one class together and were assigned Gulliver's Travels--a book I had read before and loved. Our prestigious professor, however, drained the life out of it by lecturing monotonically about his pet theory that Gulliver's voyage was a metaphor for birth. Good students sat with mouths agape; bad students slept. When we broke into small discussion sections, everyone was so stultified that the understudies running the classes simply rehashed the original monologue. To Rob, it was all "cool"; he was on his way to a degree.
Rob may not have been a stereotypically great student. But he was outstanding from the viewpoint of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, the most important arbiter of status in higher education. He went to a top-rated school, and he didn't hurt its score because the U.S. News rankings don't measure how much students learn; they don't measure whether students spend their evenings talking about Jonathan Swift or playing beer pong; and they don't measure whether students, like Rob, are just there to get through.
A single magazine's idiosyncratic ranking system may seem peripheral to the larger issues of higher education, but this particular one matters a lot. The U.S. News rankings are read by alumni, administrators, trustees, applicants, and almost everyone interested in higher education. The New York Times aptly described them as "a huge annual event," and they dominate what is far and away the best-selling college guide available. Subsequently, the rankings do have a kind of Heisenberg effect, changing the very things they measure and, in certain ways, changing the entire shape of higher education.
The problem isn't that the rankings put schools in the wrong order: A better ranking system might put Stanford 1st; it might put it 35th. I can't presume to know where it, or any other school, would rank. What I do know, however, is that a better ranking system, combined with more substantive reporting, would push Stanford to become an even better school--a place where students like Rob would have to focus more on learning than sliding by, and a place with fewer teachers putting their students to sleep. Unfortunately, the U.S. News rankings instead push schools to improve in tangential ways and fuel the increasingly prominent view that colleges are merely places in which to earn credentials.
The first U.S. News rankings appeared in 1983. The magazine grouped colleges into categories like "national universities" and "regional liberal arts colleges" and sent a survey asking for the opinions of university presidents on the five best schools in their category. There was nothing scientific or subtle about the survey and most people just shrugged it off. Donald Kennedy, president of then-first-ranked Stanford, said, "It's a beauty contest, not a serious analysis of quality."
That issue still sold remarkably well and in 1985 and 1987 U.S. News, under new owner Mortimer Zuckerman, again published rankings based solely on university presidents' perceptions. Then in 1988, U.S. News decided to take the rankings more seriously and to try to develop a franchise much like People's "50 Most Beautiful People" or the "Forbes 400." So Zuckerman placed Mel Elfin, an influential Washington journalist recently lured away from Newsweek, in charge of developing a more respectable system. Elfin found his sidekick a year later in Robert Morse, an intelligent, soft-spoken man who, if he were an actor cast as an introverted accountant, would be criticized for overplaying his role. The team got to work: Morse crunching the numbers, Elfin packaging the rankings with stories on higher education and creating the institution christened "America's Best Colleges."
Morse, Elfin, and, later, Managing Editor Alvin Sanoff, rapidly created a franchise: Every September since 1988, the magazine has produced an eagerly anticipated list that precisely orders every college in the country. According to last September's rankings, for example, St. Mary's College of California is the eighth best western regional college, just slightly better than Mt. St. Mary's College, California but well ahead of Our Lady of the Lake University in Texas--a school ranked down in the second of three tiers that the magazine groups institutions into once the top 50 schools in a category have been nailed down. "America's Best Colleges" sells about 40 percent more than U.S. News' standard weekly issues and the magazine also produces a hot-selling accompanying book. Last year, eight million people visited U.S. News' Website when it posted the rankings.
The rankings are opaque enough that no one outside the magazine can figure out exactly how they work, yet clear enough to imply legitimacy. For the past 12 years the main ranking categories have remained fairly constant: student selectivity, academic reputation in the eyes of other university presidents and admissions deans, student retention and graduation rates, faculty quality rated by pay and Ph.Ds, financial resources, and alumni giving. A category introduced in 1996 measures a university's "value added," assessed by the difference between actual and expected graduation rates (if you let in highly qualified students, your expected graduation rate is high). In short, the perfect school is rich, hard to get into, harder to flunk out of, and has an impressive name.
Beyond the rough guidelines, each category is then broken up further. Under the rules of the 2000 survey, "student selectivity" is based on some unexplained combination of the SAT scores of the 25th and 75th percentile of the entering freshman class, their class ranks, the percentage of applicants accepted, and "yield," the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll. These numbers are hard to parse, but it's difficult to accuse U.S. News' ranking system of being a simple beauty contest; it's now a complicated beauty contest and its scientific air contributes greatly to the attention people pay it. As Groucho Marx said: "Integrity is everything. If you can fake integrity, you've got it made."
Of course, there is no one definitive way to judge colleges and U.S. News does consistently encourage students to take the rankings with salt. Caltech, for example, was a surprise 1999 choice as the top-rated national university, but even its name suggests that it caters to technophiles, not poets, marines, or aspiring history professors. It also didn't seem like a great place to the seven
U.S. News Internal Analysis: Methodology found to "lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis."
In 1997, U.S. News commissioned the National Opinion Research Council to write a critique of its ranking methodology. This internal document
is probably the most detailed examination of the U.S. News rankings
that has been done.
NORC's first major critique was that there is little
justification for the precise weighting scheme that U.S. News uses: "The principal weakness
of the current approach is that the weights used to combine various measures
into an overall rating lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis."
report's second critique was that U.S. News had not done exemplary statistical
work and had not determined, for example, how individual variables are
correlated. "Apart from the weights, however, we were disturbed by how
little was known about the statistical properties of the measures or how knowledge of these
properties might be used in creating the measures."
The report also made
specific criticisms of the way that U.S. News interpreted graduation rates, yield,
and alumni giving and suggested that the rankings should be tabulated as
three-year averages: "to smooth out short-term fluctuations, random errors
in reporting, or other factors that might cause unbelievably large movements
in rankings for particular institutions."
The report also recommended that U.S. News focus
more on education: "There are two areas where some sort of measure should
be added. These areas are student experience and curriculum."
What happened to
the report? Robert Morse wouldn1t tell me. "We've moved buildings. It may
just be that no one kept it."
African-Americans accepted last year: none of them chose to attend. U.S. News understands this and sprinkles lines throughout the issue warning students of the importance of "researching the intangibles." But it also understands that, in a status-conscious era, rankings sell.
So, the magazine trudges forward, annually tweaking its algorithm. Last year, for example, criticism from rural schools persuaded the magazine to include a cost-of-living adjustment in the calculation of faculty salaries so as not to make the faculty seem cut-rate at schools where groceries and apartments cost less. This and other small changes have made the rankings better and the editors have often been praised for their willingness to listen to criticism from universities, even as they are criticized for closing decisions about the rankings off from the rest of the U.S. News staff and creating a private fiefdom isolated from the rest of the magazine. According to one former senior reporter who worked on the rankings in the early '90s: "We were roped around the neck to get us to write the serious journalistic stories in the issue, but none of us had a clue how the rankings worked." According to another former staff writer who contributed to the "Best Colleges" issue: "The rankings are completely ridiculous. But they totally pay your salary."
But further from home, the rankings are taken much more seriously. According to research done by James Monk and Ronald Ehrenberg for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a one-place change in a school's ranking one year increases its admittance rate by 0.4 percent. In other words, if a school that needs to admit 15 percent of its applicants to fill its class moves from 5th place to 10th place, they will need to admit 17 percent the next year. Monk and Ehrenberg also found that the rankings have a statistically significant impact on both yield and SAT scores of incoming freshmen. Furthermore, foundations and bond-rating organizations like Moody's use the rankings when evaluating institutions.
Ranking placement also has a demonstrably larger impact on institutions outside the highest grouping. Schools in the top subset may bounce around by a couple of places at most each year, but they tend to have all the applicants they can handle anyway. Down lower, one tiny change in a school's data or in U.S. News' methodology, can bump it from the second "tier," where its score is identical to the 51st best school in the country to the third tier where its score is identical to the 176th.
The Heisenberg Effect
Not surprisingly, there is evidence that schools alter policies for the sake of rankings. This isn't automatically bad; most of what U.S. News encourages is pretty good. But because U.S. News doesn't measure the most important thing on campus--actual learning--it is pushing colleges to prioritize in ways that are not necessarily the best. In a sense, the rankings are like a professor who ignores the content of her student's papers and instead bases her grades only on spelling and punctuation.
Since U.S. News began factoring in yield, the percentage of admitted students who choose to attend a given school, the number of colleges with "early decision" programs has shot up. Normally, students apply to college in the early winter of their senior years and then hold their breath until April when the verdicts come back. Under early decision, applicants apply to one school at the beginning of their senior year, promising to attend if admitted in December or January. Thus, if a college accepts half of its class under early decision, as many now do, it is guaranteed a much higher yield rate because all early decision students are required to attend.
Early decision programs have their advantages but they also make it much more difficult for students to compare financial aid offerings, and thus give an advantage to students who don't need to worry about financial aid. In addition, early decision has essentially pushed the application cycle forward a year. In 1980, 19 percent of all the students enrolled in the Princeton Review's SAT training course entered before January 1st of their junior year. By this year, that number had climbed to 52 percent. Yield only makes up a small percentage of an overall U.S. News score and there were a number of factors pushing the fad among elite institutions--including the fact that it makes the admissions office's job easier by spreading work out--but the U.S. News rankings were nevertheless, as confirmed by multiple university officials, a significant factor.
The introduction of U.S. News' category of "percentage of alumni who give" also significantly affected fundraising. When I was at Stanford, student groups were paid $25 an hour to solicit donations from alumni and, on the one shift I worked, were specifically told to mention that any donation would increase our ranking. Professor Ronald Ehrenberg of Cornell University described his university's two-tiered approach to improve its score in this category: increase the number of alumni who give and decrease the number of living alumni. The first goal was achieved by increasing the number of contributing alumni by aggressively pursuing small donations. The second goal was achieved by removing the names from the database of people who attended Cornell at one point but are unlikely to donate (for example, people who left the school before earning degrees). At one West Coast college, I was told, alumni who have not given money in five years have been reclassified as dead.
Administrators will deny until their ears start smoking that rankings influence their actions. And in fact few administrators actually sit down with the book and decide that they are going to change specific policies. What happens is that the rankings grease the skids
for changes in specific directions, and decisions are gradually made that move the school those ways. A good example comes from Wesleyan University where Vice President for University Relations Barbara-Jan Wilson described to me a successful campaign to increase the number of teachers hired. When she went to the trustees, she argued, in part, that an increase would, "be a good thing in the national media," which, she said, meant U.S. News.
The rankings are one of the main ways that alumni and trustees keep track of their school's progress and they are an indicator of the status society attaches to their degrees. Would the trustees have accepted Wilson's proposal if the rankings didn't exist? It's hard to know. What is clear however is that the schools seem to take the rankings so seriously that it would be surprising if they weren't having a large effect.
At Whitman college, for example, the president's fax cover sheets proclaim that the university is "the only Northwest college in U.S. News' top tier among national liberal arts colleges." The Monthly recently received a letter from Connecticut College beginning "[We] would very much like to establish a recruiting relationship with your organization. We are ranked among the top 25 national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report." It is indeed ranked exactly 25th, tied with four other schools.
There's a certain irony to the way that universities trip over themselves to improve their rankings. Not only are many of the best minds at colleges across the country preoccupied with what is essentially a silly enterprise, the books were cooked to begin with. Since the beginning, U.S. News has operated a system with the top schools pre-selected and the rest jumbled behind.
When Elfin was first charged with creating a ranking system, he seems to have known that the only believable methodology would be one that confirmed the prejudices of the meritocracy: The schools that the most prestigious journalists and their friends had gone to would have to come out on top. The first time that the staff had drafted up a numerical ranking system to test internally--a formula that, most controversially, awarded points for diversity--a college that Elfin cannot even remember the name of came out on top. He told me: "When you're picking the most valuable player in baseball and a utility player hitting .220 comes up as the MVP, it's not right."
Elfin subsequently removed the first statistician who had created the algorithm and brought in Morse, a statistician with very limited educational reporting experience. Morse rewrote the algorithm and ran it through the computers. Yale came out on top, and Elfin accepted this more persuasive formula. At the time, there was internal debate about whether the methodology was as good as it could be. According to Lucia Solorzano, who helped create the original U.S. News rankings in 1983, worked on the guide until 1988, and now edits Barron's Best Buys in College Education, "It's a college guide and the minute you start to have people in charge of it who have little understanding of education, you're asking for trouble."
To Elfin, however, who has a Harvard master's diploma on his wall, there's a kind of circular logic to it all: The schools that the conventional wisdom of the meritocracy regards as the best, are in fact the best--as confirmed by the methodology, itself conclusively ratified by the presence of the most prestigious schools at the top of the list. In 1997, he told The New York Times: "We've produced a list that puts Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in whatever order, at the top. This is a nutty list? Something we pulled out of the sky?"
We're Number One
The walls around the system that confirmed the top Ivies began to crack in 1996 when Zuckerman hired James Fallows (a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly) to edit the magazine. Fallows hired former New Yorker writer Lincoln Caplan and, when Elfin left in January of '97, Fallows put Caplan in charge of special projects at the magazine, which included the annual development of the rankings. The two began to make a series of changes that improved the rankings, most noticeably by eliminating one decimal place in the scoring (schools now get grades like 77 instead of 76.8) to create more ties and reduce a spurious air of precision. Caplan also hired a statistical expert named Amy Graham to direct the magazine's data gathering and analysis. Although both Caplan and Graham have left the magazine, and both declined to be interviewed, sources within U.S. News claim that, after looking deeply into the methodology of the rankings, Graham found that U.S. News had essentially put its thumb on the scale to make sure that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton continued to come out on top, as they did every year until 1999 after Elfin selected a formula.
This was done in large part by rejecting a common statistical technique known as standardization and employing an obscure weighting technique in the national universities category. Consider the data from the 1997 book, the last year the numbers for overall expenditures were posted publicly. Caltech spent the most of any college at $74,000 per student per year, Yale spent the fourth-most at $45,000 and Harvard spent the seventh-most at $43,000. According to the U.S. News formula applied in every single category except for national universities, the absolute rates of spending would be compared and Caltech would be credited with a huge 40-percent category advantage over Yale. Under the formula used solely in this category the difference between Caltech and Yale (first place and fourth place) was counted as essentially the same as the difference between Yale and Harvard (fourth place and seventh place) even with the vast difference in absolute spending.