The Order of Things
What college rankings really tell us.
by Malcolm Gladwell February 14, 2011
ABSTRACT: . Last summer, the editors of Car and Driver conducted a comparison test of three sports cars, the Lotus Evora, the Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport, and the Porsche Cayman S. This was the final tally: 1. Porsche Cayman 193; 2. Chevrolet Corvette 186; 3. Lotus Evora 182. Yet when you inspect the magazine’s tabulations it is hard to figure out why Car and Driver was so sure that the Cayman is better than the Corvette and the Evora. A ranking can be heterogeneous as long as it doesn’t try to be too comprehensive. But it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous. The U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” guide is run by Robert Morse, whose six-person team operates out of a small office building in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Over the years, Morse’s methodology has steadily evolved, and the ranking system looks a great deal like the Car and Driver methodology. It is heterogeneous. It aims to compare Penn State—a very large, public, land-grant university with a low tuition and an economically diverse student body—with Yeshiva University, a small, expensive, private Jewish university. The system is also comprehensive. Discusses suicide statistics. There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution, so the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best. Describes the reputation score and reputational biases. Mentions Michael Bastedo. Jeffrey Stake, a professor at the Indiana University law school, runs a Web site called the Ranking Game, which demonstrates just how subjective rankings are. There are schools that provide a good legal education at a decent price, and, by choosing not to include tuition as a variable, U.S. News has effectively penalized those schools for trying to provide value for the tuition dollar. The U.S. News ranking turns out to be full of these kinds of implicit ideological choices. It gives twice as much weight to selectivity as it does to efficacy. It favors the Yale model over the Penn State model, which means that the Yales of the world will always succeed at the U.S. News rankings because the U.S. News system is designed to reward Yale-ness. At a time when American higher education is facing a crisis of accessibility and affordability, we have adopted a de-facto standard of college quality that is uninterested in both of those factors. Mentions Graham Spanier and Ellsworth Huntington.