College Rankings Are Finally Facing a Reckoning

Colin Diver has never really liked the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking system for colleges and universities. But at least he’s come to this opinion honestly. As dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1989 to 1999, he dreaded the rankings dance every year. First off, it was a lot of work. He had to answer hundreds of questions about grades and test scores for incoming applicants, and about their salaries once they got out. And then he had to do something called a peer review, in which he gave his own personal opinion about 190 different law schools. “I had not even heard of many of those law schools,” Diver said. “What we were induced to do by the desire to improve our rankings is put ourselves in the top quintile and put our close competitors in the bottom quintile. At some point, I just gave up filling that form out altogether.”

Eventually, Diver left Penn for Reed College, a school that had shunned college rankings entirely. But he couldn’t get his old colleagues to join him in ditching them. Diver says they told him, “Unilateral disarmament is suicide.”

Earlier this year, Diver published a whole book about the way he says college rankings are distorting higher ed. But he’d come to accept that he was something of a lone voice in the wilderness here. So, you can imagine his surprise when, a couple of weeks back, he got this news: First Yale Law School, then Harvard were pulling out of U.S. News’ ranking game altogether.

On a recent episode of What Next, I spoke with Diver about why some of the country’s top law schools decided to pull out of U.S. News’ influential ranking system. Are colleges next? Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Can you lay out how the idea of ranking universities, colleges, and law schools started in the first place? How did U.S. News become what it is today?

Colin Diver: The idea actually goes back over a century. There were some ad hoc rankings back in the early 1900s that were a reflection of various desires. For example, a group of graduate schools wanted a ranking of undergraduate schools so that they would know whose students they should admit. And they actually asked the U.S. government, the Bureau of Education, which is the predecessor of the Department of Education, to prepare a ranking of undergraduate schools, which then got leaked. And the schools raised holy hell about it. And President Taft decreed that it would no longer be publicly available.

I always wondered if the rankings became as important as they did because elite education was opening up to more people. It used to be that places like Harvard and Yale were finishing schools for people who went to fancy boarding schools. But when they started letting in kids from all over, those kids had to understand the value of the schools they were applying to. Like, in a way, was it well intentioned?

You could say it was. The other thing that happened was that the market for higher education went from a local and regional market to a national and now increasingly international market. It used to be that most of the people who applied to Ivy League schools came from the Northeast, and most of the people who went to Stanford came from California. But as information became more readily available and transportation costs fell, the market for elite schools became national. And arguably it became more important to have a national source of information so that somebody in California could choose among Ivy League schools, or somebody in Massachusetts could choose whether to go to Stanford.

U.S. News stepped into the breach in 1983, initially by simply polling a large group of university presidents and asking them to name the top 10 schools in their field. And they then published that. It was popular. A number of schools that were ranked highly by that method used it in their promotional material. My own college, Amherst College, came in No. 1 among the liberal arts colleges that year, and it sent a copy of the U.S. News magazine to something like 20,000 potential applicants.

So U.S. News said, “Gee, this is really working. It’s really popular. And besides, we don’t have to advertise our services because all these colleges are going to do it for us.”

So this is a symbiotic relationship. It’s good for the magazine; it’s good for…

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