The Rankings Mishegoss

"The Rankings Mishegoss" was originally published in the November 2021 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Princeton has again topped the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, and alumni are sending me congratulatory e-mails.

I reply with mixed feelings. I am proud of Princeton’s teaching and research, and I am happy to see the University’s quality acknowledged so visibly. I am convinced, however, that the rankings game is a bit of mishegoss—a slightly wacky obsession that does harm when taken too seriously. Indeed, before Princetonians feel too good about the University’s top spot, we should remember that there are plenty of rankings out there, and pecking orders vary.

Indeed, U.S. News does not put us first in undergraduate teaching. Elon University gets that honor, and we come third after Georgia State University.

Nor does U.S. News deem Princeton the best value among research universities. The magazine reckons us fourth, behind Yale, MIT, and Harvard.

Or take Princeton out of the equation. U.S. News proclaims Columbia, Harvard, and MIT tied for second among research universities, with Yale next and Stanford following. Would you advise a prospective student to choose a school based on these distinctions? Do you believe they contain any useful information?

Beneath these peculiarities lies a fundamental problem with the whole idea of ranking colleges. Rankings have a clear meaning if we’re talking about intercollegiate athletics: higher ranked teams are expected to beat lower-ranked teams.

But educational and research programs do not compete this way (imagine: “It’s Princeton versus Harvard in undergraduate education. Tonight’s event: freshman chemistry!”). There are lots of great places to get an education. Different schools may suit different students, and America’s colleges and universities work collaboratively to educate those seeking degrees.

What is the alternative? U.S. News & World Report might treat colleges more like Consumer Reports treats cars. Consumer Reports does not aim to identify the single best sedan for all customers, and U.S. News should not suggest that one school is better than all others. Instead, it should inform prospective students and families about the factors that matter when choosing a college.

What should applicants care about? Graduation rates are crucial: a college that does not graduate its students is like a car with a bad maintenance record. It costs money without serving its purpose. And what matters is not simply the average graduation rate, but the rate for students with backgrounds like the applicant’s own: for example, some places graduate their wealthy students but do less well for low-income students.

Applicants should also want to see some measure of post-graduation outcomes. The most frequently used one is salaries after graduation, which has some value but also obvious flaws. I prefer alumni satisfaction ten years after graduation, though that data is harder to gather.

Here is a partial list of other factors that matter: net cost (again, for students like the applicant); faculty quality and student-faculty engagement; and a learning culture with high standards (you’ll get a better education at a place where students study hard and add to one another’s education).

Judged by these criteria, many schools—public and private, large and small—could be “Consumer Reports Best Buys.” Applicants should be thrilled to get into any of them; they should pick the one that most appeals to them; and they should not waste time worrying about which one is the “best.”

If you dig into the U.S. News analysis, you will find information of the kind that would feature in a “Consumer Reports” approach. The rankings incorporate, for example, graduation rates for students in general and for lower-income students in particular.

Unfortunately, U.S. News and its increasingly numerous competitors often report even component data in the form of rankings, and they emphasize the overall rankings rather than the underlying facts. The result is to mash up criteria and exaggerate small differences in misleading ways: Princeton is #1! Meanwhile, Columbia moves into a tie for second!

All of this might be amusing if it did not do so much damage. Students choose colleges on the basis of rankings. Many colleges and universities compete to move up. Some avoid doing difficult but valuable things—like admitting talented low-income students who thrive at college if given appropriate support—in favor of easier strategies more likely to add points in the U.S. News formula.

If there must be rankings, I suppose we should be happy to be at or near the top. We should temper our enthusiasm, though, given the problems with the enterprise. Even tiny tweaks to an arbitrary rating formula could jumble the ordering.

More fundamentally, we should keep in mind that Princeton’s mission statement commits the University to “research and teaching of unsurpassed quality” that improves the world, not to being “the best.”

We want to be as good as we can be. And if others equal us? That’s a good thing, not a problem. There is a lot of talent in the world, and we are better off if America has many high-quality colleges and universities for aspiring students to attend.

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