A Modest Proposal on Rankings

Mark Salisbury issues an open letter to college presidents.

September 17, 2018
 

Dear College Presidents:

Now that you've spent a week denying that you care about your latest U.S. News rankings, let's cut to the chase. Of course, you care. You know that if your ranking edges up even a little bit, board members, wealthy donors and alumni will eat up the external validation of their college's specialness and attribute some of that fleeting surge of warm-fuzzy to your steady hand on the wheel.

You also know (or, more precisely, you've convinced yourself) that since so many prospective students and families use the U.S. News rankings as a source of information about higher education institutions, surely the publicity gained by full-fledged participation in these rankings outweighs the added costs of managing institutional metrics like class size, completed applications or total potential donors to maximize your college's final rank. So, you rationalize, what's the harm in a little expediency?

Unfortunately, we aren't talking about an isolated moment of ethical relativism. Over a 30-year span this has become the accepted logic of hundreds of college presidents, and, as a result, one seemingly innocent decision has morphed into a runaway plague of Faustian bargains. It turns out that, since the foundational premise of the U.S. News rankings equates money with quality, every attempt to manage to it drives costs higher. It's no surprise that higher ed's acquiescence to rankings has paralleled a stunning increase in college costs. Combine that with the explosion of merit aid (AKA institutional trophy hunting) at the expense of need-based aid, and it's no wonder that low- and middle-income students now find themselves pinned under a mountain of debt or unable to afford college altogether.

Yet the simple sidestep that would allow higher education to dig itself out of this hole has been right under our collective noses the whole time. And I don't mean doing something crazy like simply refusing to participate. Despite the toxicity of the rankings themselves, one has to admit that U.S. News produces an impressive catalogue of information on colleges and universities across the United States. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to support this distribution of information while freeing all of us from the corrosive effects of the rankings?

Last month U.S. News outed eight colleges and universities that had misreported data in at least one prior year. The punishment for these institutions, meted out with surprising compassion by U.S. News, was to include these institutions in their giant publication of information, but classify them in a category of "unranked" colleges. Interestingly, the entirety of higher education seemed to accept this decision as if it had been passed down from the almighty. Of course, given the degree to which higher education institutions have fought federal efforts to collect better data but haven't raised a finger when U.S. News asks for additional data, you might wonder which entity really sits on the golden throne.

So, the result of "misreporting" data is an unranking? Well then, there's your solution.

Next spring, college and university presidents, direct those who complete your institution's U.S. News surveys to misreport data. Seriously. Think of it as a first step in making up for the errors of your predecessors. Now, before you feign horror at this idea (or try to shoot the messenger), let's be clear about a few things. We've long since crossed over into Absurdsville. An entire industry of nonprofit educational organizations embraced a corporate-owned ranking system defined by money and prestige.

Moreover, the corporate entity that designed this ranking system had no credible history of higher education expertise prior to introducing their ranking system. Nonetheless, the organizations within that industry proceeded to reconstruct their pricing structure and financial aid philosophy to earn the highest ranking possible, abandoning many of the mechanisms that made colleges and universities a credible driver of upward mobility. Since you and your institutions played a primary role in creating this mess, the least you can do is hear me out.

U.S. News still gets to continue its wonderful public service, informing prospective students and families about the full range of American colleges and universities. It's not like there aren't a hundred other reasonable sources of information about colleges and universities these days, but let's not let reality get in the way. And if U.S. News hold itself up to its own precedent (which, given its longstanding intransigence about dubious metrics, seems like a reasonable possibility), the higher education institutions that misreport their numbers will get banished to the purgatory of the unranked.

Just imagine what it would feel like in your administration building if no one felt pressured to explain away an entirely inconsequential ranking? Better still, just imagine if you could take all the time and energy you and your staff expend playing rankings whack-a-mole and put it into a singular focus on improving student learning or reducing tuition or something else that could actually benefit students?

I'm sure this is not the kind of leadership that you are used to invoking (i.e., taking a stand on principle no matter the consequences), so here are a few suggestions that might help you get started.

Team up:

With all of the consortiums and partnerships and articulation agreements out there, it seems like teaming up (or copying someone else's idea) is a core feature of college leadership. Now is a perfect time to put that spirit of collaboration to good use. Find a colleague across the country and borrow each other’s common data sets or IPEDS reports to send to U.S. News. Won't it be fun to share a secret with one other president at a future leadership summit?

Start Small:

Some of the numbers U.S. News asks you to report are large enough that fudging a digit or two won't make a bit of difference. For example, take endowments. The way that computer algorithms run the markets these days, a hundred-thousand-dollar swing can happen in a nanosecond. Surely, your total endowment will eventually round up. Or when you are filling out the reputation survey, put your institution just one notch higher than plausible. If you already do that, revisit the endowment idea, but translate the total into bitcoin.

Be Creative:

Sometimes numbers don't really convey the way we all feel about helping our students. When you are reporting what you spend on instruction or other student services, don't limit yourself to numbers. After all, money is a just a social construct, right? There has to be an emoji or Twitter meme that more fully captures your institution's spending on students. Maybe try the phrase, "All the gold they could eat."

Before you reject this idea out-of-hand, please try to remember that U.S. News doesn't own American higher education. Your institution doesn't report to them, and you'll survive just fine no matter what happens to your ranking (you ought to know that by now, since your ranking hasn't budged in thirty years anyway). Moreover, because there are so many rankings now, they've all washed each other out. So next spring, let's turn the category of the unranked into the most coveted spot in the U.S. News rankings. And let's have some fun doing it, while we are at it.

Bio

Mark Salisbury loved every minute he wasted filling out the U.S. News surveys over the last eight years.

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