Institutional Ethics: That Mostly Irrelevant U.S. News Thing

Summer’s slow death is a bittersweet time: we’re getting older, and the bellwethers of fall are here yet again—temperatures are dropping, slowly but ever so surely; the leaves haven’t yet changed, but there’s an acute sense of autumn’s potentiality in every branch; and U.S. News & World Report has published its tragically flawed list of “best colleges” once more.

Since 1983, the mostly-defunct print magazine has been forcing schools to comply with its idiotic ranking system ranking what it sees as the best colleges in the United States. Though I’m reasonably sure that its rankings were initially envisioned as a way to help harried students and parents navigate the murky waters of higher ed, the whole endeavor has slowly degenerated—nowadays, it’s almost as if U.S. News dictates the priorities of our nation’s educational complex as a whole. (They’ve got lists for everything: Best high schools, best graduate schools, best hospitals, best children’s hospitals, best health plans, best mutual funds, best places to retire, etcad infinitum. Everyone loves a list!)

The bottom line? If your school doesn’t make it onto the list or drops too many places, be prepared to lose applicants, donations, and interest—a price that many schools can’t afford to pay. It’s a terrifyingly Procrustean bargain.

…Which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that even elite institutions are feeling the pinch. This January, the New York Times reported that Claremont McKenna—one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation—had been cheating the USN&WR rankings by inflating SAT scores since 2005. How has this affected their ranking this year, you ask? They’re 10th—a single spot lower than before.

I think that it’s insane that senior officials at one of the best institutions in the nation feel as though they’ve got to cheat to get ahead; it’s even crazier that their deception didn’t really affect their ranking at all. Even college admissions counselors—that is, those saints  people whose job it is to know more about universities than anyone else—are skeptical of the usefulness of USN&WR’s ratings.

So why do we have an annual bout of hysteria over The List? Read the rest of this entry »