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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday colleges should not worship at “the false altar” of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings.

He made the remarks in a speech that opened a conference in Cambridge, Mass., organized by the law schools of Harvard and Yale Universities to discuss student needs for information about the law schools they want to attend. The two law schools announced in November that they would no longer participate in the U.S. News rankings, which set off a movement among law schools, medical schools and two colleges that serve undergraduates to stop participating in the magazine’s rankings.

Cardona’s remarks were about all colleges, not just law schools, but he began by talking about the two law schools that organized the conference.

He asked the audience for the significance of two numbers: 163 and 170. He answered that they were the length of time that Yale and Harvard, respectively, had law schools that existed prior to when U.S. News started ranking law schools 30 years ago.

“You thrived,” he said, without U.S. News.

“Harvard and Yale Law could have wiped your hands clean of the ranking and called it a day. Instead, and really importantly, you’re here bringing leaders together to talk about what comes next. It’s not enough to abandon a broken system,” Cardona said. “The real work is building a better one for everyone. And you’re taking the lead on that.”

Cardona added that the issues the law schools were discussing were even “more urgent” for undergraduate colleges. He said that 60 percent of Black college students and 50 percent of Latino students don’t graduate. A ranking “does nothing” to fix that problem, he said.

The government “will not drive this work,” he said. The colleges will have to take on U.S. News by focusing on things that matter, and not rankings.

Cardona added, “If it costs you a spot on the rankings, wear it like a badge of honor.”

At the end of his talk, Cardona took questions from the deans at Harvard and Yale.

John Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean at Harvard, asked how the department could encourage colleges to become more transparent with their own data.

Cardona responded that he recently used College Scorecard as a parent for the first time, and it left him thinking about that question.

“We need to communicate much better about graduation rates and salaries” that students earn after they graduate, he said. Colleges should be able to answer the question “What is the ROI of your program?”

Yale’s law dean, Heather Gerken, asked how law schools could be encouraged to reflect “our values.”

Cardona said law schools could recruit and admit more students from historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions and more students with degrees from a community college and a four-year institution.

Cardona stressed that the message about rankings and whom colleges should admit needs to be visible. He recalled when he was the principal of an elementary school that he met the father of a 12-year-old boy who was just finishing at the school. The father told Cardona that his son wasn’t going to college because his family couldn’t afford it.

How much talent is the United States losing because it has never made the point that the man’s son is wanted by many colleges, Cardona asked.

James Kvaal, the under secretary of education, was the final speaker, summing up messages from the day.

He said that nationally, the graduation rate in the U.S. within six years of starting a program is 62 percent. That number may seem low, but he said it’s up by eight percentage points in a decade.

Kvaal also said law schools and prestigious colleges need to think about how “prestige is narrowly concentrated” and results in many admissions decisions being “somewhat arbitrary.” Law schools especially should think about admissions, he said.

What Does U.S. News Think?

As for U.S. News, it issued a letter to Cardona on Wednesday.

“With nearly 40 years of experience and expertise in collecting and reporting on data from thousands of educational institutions, U.S. News is a trusted authority in compiling complex information and presenting it in a clear and accessible manner to students and the general public,” the letter said. “Our rankings help aspiring students as they take their first step in ensuring their career opportunities, earning potential and quality of life. This is especially important in today’s environment where the admissions process has become increasingly competitive, less transparent and more time consuming. As tuition continues to skyrocket, students require reliable information to guide them in their decision-making process.”

The magazine added, “In addition, our team of dedicated expert journalists works tirelessly to collect and analyze data from a diverse range of educational institutions, many of which do not have the same level of resources as Harvard. This is because our readers and users are interested in a wide variety of schools beyond just the top-ranked institutions.”

The conclusion of the letter said, “We at U.S. News believe that every student deserves access to high quality, transparent and reliable information about their education. We hope that you will join us in our efforts to promote greater transparency and accountability in higher education and work to ensure that all students have the information they need to succeed.”

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