In the past two weeks the University of Wisconsin has received signals of sustained success from the world of academic rankings. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities, UW remained ranked at No. 19, and, in the U.S. News and World Report Ranking of National Universities, UW also remained flat at 41. I expressed my weariness of college rankings in general last year in a column, but I feel like the over-politicized, oversimplified and over-hyped U.S. News and World Report rankings deserve specific scrutiny.
The U.S. News rankings attempt to be the gospel of college selection. Every year, their rankings make headlines and cause students to stress out about small things that don’t actually matter that much. It seems that these rankings serve U.S. News and World Report much more than they benefit the general public.
The rankings have a clear bias towards private universities. Only three of the top 25 schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings are public. This is not the case with other rankings of universities. Nine of the top 25 American universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities are public. U.S. News and World report did not always have this bias. In the original 1983 rankings, three public schools were in the top 10. Soon after they started publishing the rankings annually, was a clear drop in public school rankings occurred. In 1988, University of California-Berkeley was ranked fifth— the next year it dropped to 24th. Michigan also dropped significantly, from 8th to 25th, as did North Carolina, from 11th to 23rd. Wisconsin, William and Mary, Texas and Illinois were all ranked between 20 and 25, and all these schools dropped off the rankings entirely for about a decade. My theory is that in 1989, when the rankings were released annually, they became less about presenting an honest picture, and more about generating revenue for the publication. It’s relatively easy to get into large public schools that have 5,000-plus new students every year as opposed to small private schools that typically have 1,500 or fewer. By making small private schools the “better schools,” they create competition and therefore interest in the rankings.
A high correlation between school selectivity and U.S. News and World Report Ranking exists. Smaller schools tend to have lower acceptance rates because they can only house a smaller number of students. It logically follows that because schools try to pick the most qualified applicants, the average profile of the 1,000 students accepted to private schools will look a lot better than the that of the 5,000 students admitted to a public school. The use of selectivity as a factor in determining the best universities is clearly beneficial to private schools, and the school’s selectivity in and of itself says nothing about the quality of that school. A public school’s top 1,000 students may look the exact same as a private school’s student body. Because public schools have the capacity to educate a larger body of students, they are penalized in these rankings.
Another thing that suggests the U.S. News and World Report rankings are more about profit than about serving the public is the fact that rankings come out annually. Simply not that much changes on a year-to-year basis. Schools have faculty and students constantly coming and going, but to assess that change on a year-to-year basis is kind of like the weekly writers and coaches poll in college football — they are just snapshots in time that are expected to change constantly. There is no guarantee that your school will have the same ranking when you graduate as when you start, and worrying about the politics of it on a year-to-year basis is stupid. If U.S. News and World wants to serve the general public and give itself more credibility it will stop publishing these lists annually.
If one wishes to create an unbiased ranking of universities, they may take into account statistics such as student graduation rates, employment rate of graduates or percentage of faculty with terminal degree, as these actually relate to the quality of the school. Using selectivity says nothing about the quality of the school (as it is a measure of students before they even step foot on campus) and is clearly bias toward private schools. If U.S. News and World Report wishes to serve the public, it will stop presenting its clearly politicized and self-serving rankings of colleges.
Spencer Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in political science.