The U.S. News university rankings influence what they measure
The U.S. News & World Report released its annual national university rankings at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Each year, the U.S. News list causes tremors in academic boardrooms. University presidents and other higher-education bigwigs often treat the rankings with a mixture of deference and disdain. They might scoff at the list’s limitations and point to the rankings’ methodological shortcomings, such as the advantage given to institutions with lots of money to burn — joking, for example, that the University of Virginia would move up in the rankings if it carted out a barrel of money to the Lawn and set it aflame. But when these same higher-education leaders received advance access Monday to the U.S. News rankings, it’s unlikely they deleted the email.
The University did well Tuesday. It held steady at No. 2 for public universities, and notched a respectable No. 23 overall — tied with Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and Wake Forest. It failed to unseat the pesky University of California at Berkeley, which at No. 20 ranked highest among public institutions.
The blend of emotions the U.S. News list provokes in higher-ed circles — a mix of skepticism and reverence — points to an element of arbitrariness in how we attach prestige to academic institutions. Yet this conflicted stance toward the list on the part of many higher-education leaders affirms the sizable influence that university rankings wield over academic administrators and potential students.
Rankings such as those of the U.S. News shape a university’s reputation. Potential students and parents consult these lists to determine which schools are prestigious and which are not, which are good and which are bad. The modern university is difficult to evaluate, so it is easier to have an authority such as the U.S. News declare which schools are worth attending. And when it comes to applying for jobs, which matters more — what you actually learned, or how prestigious your alma mater is? Few prospective students are likely to look up a potential school’s operating budget, or read its student paper. It’s far simpler to rely on reputation.
So for universities seeking to solidify and boost their reputations, these rankings provide ammunition. The University, for example, quickly seized on the U.S. News list as evidence of the school’s position among the country’s “top institutions,” in a University press release published Tuesday.
This process of reputation-shaping also works in reverse. A decline in rankings can lead to a decline in reputation. Such a shift is sometimes for good reasons, because the U.S. News rankings can reflect genuine problems with an institution. Howard University, which tumbled 38 spots in the rankings this year, is one example: in a letter made public in June, the vice chairwoman of Howard’s board of trustees admitted that the university was “in genuine trouble.”
To argue that national rankings help shape a university’s reputation seems like a truism. But it is worth bringing up because — pop quiz — what variable in the U.S. News methodology gets the most weight? The magazine treats a university’s reputation, weighted at 22.5 percent (tied with retention), as the most important factor in determining its rank.
The U.S. News measures academic reputation through a system of peer assessment. The magazine sends a survey to the country’s university presidents, deans and provosts asking them to grade other schools in their category. For academics whose schools fall in the category of national universities, this process involves grading 281 institutions, according to this year’s figures. The survey asks them to consider such factors as faculty dedication to teaching. It is difficult to imagine how even a well-connected academic leader could accurately and insightfully evaluate such a large number of schools. Further, grading aspects such as faculty dedication to teaching is challenging even at one’s own institution, let alone others. So how do the academics who fill out the survey respond? They guide their answers through speculation and rumor. In other words, they assess reputation based on not immediate experience but on — yes — reputation, in a second-order exercise that sustains a seemingly endless loop. This chain of ascribing prestige or lack thereof dances in circles. So does the calendar: we sit tight and wait for the 2015 rankings to come out next September.