Last week, I received an email message from my alma mater, Colorado College, announcing its decision to withdraw from the U.S. News & World Report college and university rankings that are published each fall, sending college and university administrators and trustees into fits of braggadocio or, more likely, anxiety and defensive explanation. The college’s decision followed similar announcements last fall from several elite law schools and medical schools, but this is the first time a prominent liberal arts college has withdrawn from the U.S. News rankings since Reed College did so in 1995.
The message came from the relatively new president of the college, L. Song Richardson, and it was accompanied by a brief video and written statement explaining the decision. Among the chief reasons for the decision, Richardson cited the rankings’ flawed correlation of institutional wealth and educational quality, the malign role of the infamous questionnaire that prompts college administrators to rate and rank their competitors, the damaging emphasis on standardized test scores and class rank in the admission process, and the regrettable impact of ranking student debt loads. Richardson also noted that the college has been ranked consistently among the top 30 liberal arts colleges in the nation. Unlike Reed, in this regard, Colorado College came to its decision from a relatively enviable position in the ranking scheme.
Richardson also alluded to the “perverse effects” that the rankings have on decision-making among college and university administrators and trustees. As a former college president, I can attest that these effects are significant and poorly understood by the public.
They begin with the fact that the rankings inevitably encourage administrators and trustees to focus more on externalities—test scores, admission (and denial) rates, comparative financial metrics and reputation as measured by rankings—than on how well their institutions are executing the educational mission. Bad decisions regarding financial priorities and commitments, admission and financial aid, and educational programs inevitably follow. Often, and most damaging, the rankings become embedded in the ways institutions think and talk about themselves to themselves and their various publics, including alumni. It’s a risky, corrupting process. A ballyhooed movement upward in one year is almost inevitably followed by a downward movement in the next. What then? Is the college any different, any better, any worse? It is almost certainly more distracted.
Beyond institutional decision-making, the perverse effects of the rankings also show up in the thinking of prospective students and parents, who begin to equate the educational quality and character of institutions with their rankings. The remarkable complexity and diversity of American higher education (unique in the world), and the central issue of how well a student’s interests and aspirations line up with a college’s character and offerings (the key to student success), get buried in the process. Prospective students and parents deserve all the information they can get their hands on, including the abundant public information published by institutions and federal and state agencies. But the richness and utility of that information disappear in the abstraction of rankings.
When the elite law schools and medical schools made their announcements last fall, Inside Higher Ed featured an article by Scott Jaschik that speculated on whether and when undergraduate institutions, and especially the strongest among them, might follow the lead of the professional schools. We now know the answer. Colorado College has thrown down a marker and challenged its peers. It’s time for them to step up.