Ranking Lacks Credibility

This Op-ed ran in USA Today on Monday, September 10, 2001.

It is a sorry commentary on educational leadership if colleges manipulate data about their institutions in an effort to try to move up in rankings manufactured every year by U.S. News & World Report, although the jury is still out about how widespread these practices are. What is clear is the deeply flawed nature of the rankings themselves.

Put simply, U.S. News' numbers fail to add up. Recently, a former director of data research at U.S. News joined the increasingly vocal critics of the wrongheaded methodology and commercial motives of the U.S. News rankings. An internal study commissioned by the magazine in 1997 found, according to The Washington Monthly, that "the weights used to combine various measures into an overall rating lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis." Further, U.S. News focuses almost exclusively on input measures — including institutional wealth, faculty salaries and acceptance rates — and almost entirely ignores the key question in evaluating a college: how well it teaches its students.

Leaders in higher education must continue to speak out against a ranking system that we know lacks credibility and validity. Not only should we refuse to give lip service to this specious and oversimplified labeling of our institutions, we should resist labeling our students with numbers, too. There are insidious parallels between the bogus ranking of colleges and universities by U.S. News and the ranking of students by their SAT scores.

Last year, Mount Holyoke College made submission of the SAT score optional for applicants because it fails to measure many skills and talents — including intellectual curiosity, motivation and leadership — that we value. Our decision was hailed by many, but a few skeptics suggested that it must be an effort to boost our average SAT score and thus our ranking among leading colleges.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, we have de-emphasized the SAT because we seek a truer assessment of a student's potential. So, too, do college rankings deserve such de-emphasis, if not outright contempt.

In short, the number is up for both the SAT and U.S. News' ranking game.