In the beginning, God created the heavens, the earth and American higher education. We lived in a bucolic state of nature until an evil serpent, U.S. News & World Report, tempted us to partake of the Tree of Knowledge: namely, college rankings. A fall from grace ensued.
That’s what you might think when reading about the recent spate of attacks on U.S. News. Six elite law schools — including Harvard and Yale — announced that they would no longer participate in its rankings, which reward schools whose graduates earn high salaries. Critics say that penalizes institutions that prepare students for less lucrative jobs in the nonprofit world.
They’re right. I hope this news spells the death knell for the U.S. News system, which has likewise encouraged undergraduate colleges to favor wealthy applicants. But there were rankings before U.S. News, and there will be rankings after it. What we need are lists that compare schools along different lines, including how well they promote public service.
In 1911, the Association of American Colleges and Universities asked the federal Bureau of Education — a precursor to today’s Department of Education — to produce an “objective” measure of colleges. The bureau created a list of 344 institutions, divided into four levels of quality. When the list was inadvertently released to the public, it caused so much outrage among educators that President William Howard Taft ordered a halt to its distribution. Nobody ever likes to be told that they’re in the lower ranks.
As higher education grew, other classifications of colleges appeared. Prefiguring U.S. News, which surveys professors and administrators about schools, the Chicago Tribune in April 1957 began publishing a series of articles on the top 10 colleges and universities as measured by what educators, scholars and college officials, among others, said about them.
And in America, we love rankings — of everything. Just Google “top 10” and see for yourself. You’ll find endless lists of the best cars, the best movies and the best hotels. There’s even a website, The Top Tens, that catalogs more than 200,000 top 10 lists — yes, you read that right — ”for everything under (and including) the sun.”
This obsession was foreseen by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in 1831. America, Tocqueville observed, was the world’s most democratic and egalitarian society. Dispensing with hereditary titles, it offered unparalleled opportunity to a wide array of white people. (Black people were another story altogether.) But the freest country was also the most conformist one: Precisely because we Americans lacked fixed social standards, we were always comparing ourselves to each other.
“It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being,” Tocqueville wrote, “and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.”
Call it buyer’s remorse, on an existential scale: There’s always something or someone better out there that you could have purchased or pursued. The only way you can determine what’s “best” in America is to figure out what your fellow Americans think is best.
Higher education is no different in that regard. As more and more people went to college, they also wanted to know where their schools stood. The genius of U.S. News was harnessing that impulse in an attractive, easy-to-use package. First in print and then on the web, its lists provided a sense of comfort in a sea of anxiety.
The problem wasn’t that its rankings were “wrong”; instead, it ranked the wrong things. You got points for accepting lots of rich kids who go on to make lots of money (and to donate some of that money to their colleges). But as Tocqueville pointed out, Americans will always want to know how their schools stack up next to others. What we need are rankings that compare them in more meaningful ways.
In fact, we already have them. One useful ranking comes from Washington Monthly magazine, which lists colleges based on the social mobility they provide: Schools that help less privileged students move up the economic ladder get a higher score. The list also rewards schools whose alumni work in AmeriCorps, the military and other forms of public service.
Full disclosure: I write periodically for the Washington Monthly and count several of its editors as friends. Its ranking system is one of many alternatives to U.S. News, including lists compiled by the magazines Money, which unsurprisingly emphasizes college costs, and Times Higher Education.
My point isn’t to pump up one evaluation system or another. It’s to remind us that rankings of colleges will always be with us, no matter what happens to U.S. News & World Report. The real question is how we will rank the rankings and what that will say about us.
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