On June 22, the Chronicle of Higher Education announced that Money magazine would start rating instead of ranking colleges for the first time in over 30 years. Why is this newsworthy?
This move to “rating” is in part a response to a college admissions market that is increasingly hostile to rankings systems, which have had an iron grip on the industry until recently. Starting in Fall 2022, dozens of elite law and medical schools, then several niche colleges, declined to cooperate with the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings for the first time. So far, one Ivy League school, Columbia University, has dropped out of U.S. News’s undergraduate rankings.
One of the major criticisms of rankings systems is that they encourage universities to manipulate data in order to climb a few spots. It is perhaps not a coincidence that last summer, Columbia University dropped from 2nd to 18th in U.S. News when it was discovered to have manipulated class size and faculty numbers. U.S. News rankings in particular rely heavily on institutions’ prestige and wealth. Only in May (and likely in response to increased boycotting), the outlet announced that it would no longer take into account alumni giving, high school class rank, or number of faculty, though it will still consider institutional reputation among peers.
Another criticism is that traditional rankings do not take into account the individual characters of institutions as they focus on stacking colleges against each other. Many have argued that vying for the same ranks has encouraged colleges to leave behind their unique cultural or spiritual commitments in favor of maximizing their endowments and their application numbers. For instance, Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame, a rural Catholic university, are tied for the 18th spot in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings; next down is California’s public flagship, the University of California – Berkeley. These three elite schools have vastly different missions and student bodies. Columbia is a private, secular Manhattan Ivy League, while Notre Dame is a Catholic, Midwestern rural institution focused on the liberal arts, and Berkeley is equally strong in STEM and the traditional humanities. What they do have in common is a generous endowment: Columbia’s endowment is the 13th highest in the nation at $13.3 billion; Notre Dame is 10th in the nation at $16.7 billion; and Berkeley is 25th in the nation at $6.9 billion.
But what makes rating systems any different from rankings systems?
The basic difference is that rankings compare colleges to each other with reference to a set of standards —without taking into account the disparate missions of different institutions—, while ratings measure them only against an external standard, and ultimately group schools according to that standard’s metrics. This allows the consumer to compare each school to others for himself. For example, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn?® project grades the depth and breadth of colleges’ core curricula on an “A” to “F” scale, based on publicly available course catalogs. Germany’s Centre for Higher Education (CHE) University Ranking evaluates colleges’ performance in different academic fields and classes them into three tiers – high, middle, and low – according to a personalized list of indicators that vary based on each field, such as research activity, course offerings, and faculty supervision. The Colleges of Distinction rating system identifies the best colleges based on four areas of “distinction:” student engagement, teaching quality, community, and outcomes. And Money magazine’s new rating system reviews colleges on a five-star scale based on their affordability, quality of education, and outcomes.
As the Supreme Court prepares its ruling on affirmative action, which will have a pivotal impact on colleges’ admissions processes, most everyone who cares about higher education can agree on one point: Universities need to do a better job of educating a broad swathe of the American populace. The college admissions industry is in dire need of objective, high standards, and just as colleges should have objective standards for choosing students, students should have access to objective standards for choosing colleges.