Gladwell on US News college rankings

In his latest New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell takes aim at the US News & World Report college rankings (the full story requires a subscription). This is a familiar target and I have some thoughts about Gladwell’s analysis.

Even though I like Gladwell, I found this article underwhelming. It doesn’t give us much new information though it is an easy yet thought-provoking read about indexes (and could easily be used for a class discussion about research methods and rankings). And if his main conclusion is the ranking depends on who is doing the ranking…we already knew that.

Some things that would be beneficial to know (and some of these ideas are prompted by recently reading Mitchell Stevens’ Creating a Class where he spent 1.5 years working in an admissions department of a New England, DIII, liberal arts schools):

1. Gladwell seems to suggest that US News is just making arbitrary decisions. Not quite: they think they have a rationale for these decisions. As the head guy said, they have talked to a lot of experts and this is how they think it works. They could be wrong in their measures but they have reasons. Other publications use other factors (see a summary of those different factors here) but their lists are also not arbitrary – they have reasons for weighting factors differently or introducing new factors.

2. Stevens argues that the rankings work because they denote status. The reputational rankings are just that. And while they may be silly measures of “educational quality,” human beings are influenced by status and want to know relative rankings. Gladwell seems to suggest that the US News rankings have a huge impact – making it a circular status system dependent on their rankings – but there are other status systems that both agree and disagree with US News rankings.

2a. Additionally, it is not as if these sorts of rankings created a status system of colleges. Before US News, people already had ideas about this: US News simply codified it and opened it up to a lot more schools. There perhaps even could be an argument that their rankings opened up the college status system to more participants who wouldn’t have been part of the discussion before.

3. Stevens also suggests that parents and potential students often have to have a good “emotional fit” with a school before making the final decision. Much of the decision-making is made on status – Stevens says that most times when students have two schools (or more) to choose from, they will likely choose the one with a higher status. But the campus visits and interactions are important, even if they just confirm the existing status structure.

Ultimately, this discussion of US News rankings can get tiresome. Lots of academics (and others) don’t like the rankings. Schools claim not to like the rankings. Then why doesn’t somebody do something about it? Stevens suggests it is because if a school drops out of this game, their relative status will drop (and he makes the same argument for athletics: schools have to have some athletics to keep up, not necessarily to win). However, there are a lot of colleges that don’t need the extra applicants that a good US News ranking system would bring. Plus, there are alternative guides and rankings available – there are a number of others that examine different factors and develop different rankings.

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