A few years ago, when I was working at a different institution, my dean gave a long speech about the evils of the U.S. News and World Report ranking system. It caused schools to expand their applicant pool, so they could reject as many people as possible; it also encouraged them to seek more well-to-do candidates, whose academic records tend to be stronger.
"Also," the dean deadpanned, "our own ranking should be higher."
Everyone laughed, but it was no joke. Most people who work at universities view institutional rankings as a kind of modern-day fairy-tale, a set of elaborate myths masquerading as science. But they're myths that we live by, to the detriment of our students—and of ourselves.
Witness the recent scandal at Temple University, which forced out its longtime business school dean after an investigation found that the school had falsified data about its online M.B.A. program. The review showed that the Fox School of Business misrepresented the number of applicants who took the GMAT test, exaggerated their average undergraduate grade point averages, and understated the amount of debt that students incurred.
Why? To maintain its ranking at U.S. News and World Report, of course, which had anointed it as the nation's top online M.B.A. program for four straight years. Amid concern that other Fox programs might have also falsified data, Temple announced on Friday that it would withdraw all of its M.B.A. degrees from consideration "out of respect for the U.S. News rankings."
But I doubt that anyone at Temple, or at any other school, truly respects those rankings. Like my former dean, they just want a higher one. And they'll do anything to get it.
That's why some institutions flat-out lie about their data, as Temple is alleged to have done. Others find more clever ways to game the system. Since U.S. News and World Report rewards schools for classes with fewer than 20 students, colleges will move a few students from a class of 22 or 23 into a larger one. Or they'll schedule smaller classes for the fall semester, when U.S. News typically gathers its information.
Other schools omit foreign-born or economically disadvantaged students when they compute their SAT averages, because these groups tend to decrease the mean. Or they simply admit these students for the spring term, so they won't count against the average.
Worst of all, schools increasingly provide tuition discounts for rich kids who don't really need them. Why? Because, as my old dean noted, these students tend to have higher grades and scores. The U.S. News ranking rises, and everyone walks away happy, except poorer applicants, of course, who have a harder time getting in.
On the faculty side, meanwhile, schools are rewarded for hiring more professors with Ph.D.s and for the research dollars these scholars bring with them. But I'm a Ph.D. professor, and I can assure you that neither number reflects the quality of teaching at an institution.
Indeed, students at research-intensive schools might actually receive worse instruction. Faculty are warned against devoting too much time to their students, which can hurt their chances of promotion. "I could be better," one young professor confessed in a 1996 study of faculty evaluation, "but if I spent my time improving, I wouldn't get tenure."
But students and their families aren't necessarily looking for the best classes or professors; they want the best return on their investment, especially as tuition costs continue to climb. So they turn to the U.S. News and World Report list, believing that a higher-ranked school will confer more status—and, eventually, more salary—than a lower-ranked one.
And that, too, turns out to be a myth. Of course, graduates from A-list schools achieve greater wealth and status than the products of other institutions. But when you compare students who were admitted to both kinds of schools, but selected the lower-ranked one, you find almost no difference. If you're the kind of person who can gain admission to a highly selective school, you're going to succeed no matter which school you select.
So here's my modest suggestion for anyone trying to figure out where to go to school: ignore U.S. News and World Report. It tricks us into thinking that institutions determine our destinies. And it encourages those institutions to deceive us, as Temple supposedly did.
Last Friday Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro launched a probe of Temple, to see if it broke any laws with the data it provided to U.S. News. But the rest of us are to blame, too, for investing so much authority in a specious set of rankings. The fault, dear educational consumer, lies not just in U.S. News and World Report or in the craven schools that seek its seal of approval. It's in ourselves.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know" (Oxford University Press)