Home Academic information University rankings are wrong. Can we all agree on a boycott?

University rankings are wrong. Can we all agree on a boycott?

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The US News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities are false, unnecessary, and sometimes fraudulent. If you have ever had doubts, please refer to the guilty verdict in the federal trial of former Temple Business School dean Moshe Porat.

There’s a lot of criticism to be made, but let’s focus for a moment on the accountability of US News and World Report. They claim they do not verify numbers submitted by universities. In other words, no one is verifying the information submitted. US News claims they don’t have the resources to do the verification, even though the magazine’s profits have skyrocketed mainly because of published rankings.

While it is a sacred obligation for universities and colleges to report data accurately, the best course of action in the case of the US News and World Report surveys is to boycott them all together.

The US News Rankings were created in 1983 to save a failed news magazine. And, oh my god, has this marketing strategy been successful. What the magazine won, the nation as a whole lost.

Millions of potential students are misled into thinking that the best colleges and universities reject the most applicants. This year, the “best” universities are also listed as having the “best value for money”. They are in the order of Yale, MIT and Harvard. Of course, the best value for the 3-4 percent that is allowed.

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Over the years, US News has changed its formula. But whatever they do, the richest, most selective schools always win, and as Valerie Strauss says in the Washington Post, the rankings are always ridiculous.

Since 1983, many have written about the damage caused by the US News and World Report rankings. Walt Hickey puts it best in his headline Business Insider:

“University rankings have made school less affordable, less fair and more miserable for students. The pandemic has revealed how broken the system is. “

Hickey points out that US News’ definition of academic excellence includes selectivity, test scores, grades, and institutional resources. No credit is given for mentoring, counseling or design-of-life guidance.

The pandemic has increased the damage. As Hickey puts it, “During the pandemic, students needed academic flexibility. Thanks to the rigor of the rankings, they did not understand it. When graduation and retention was 35% of their score, colleges simply couldn’t afford to transfer students, postpone graduation, or suspend enrollment as it could impact disastrous on their completion rate.

So why do the US News and World Report rankings continue to wield so much power? One of the reasons is that Americans love lists. I just read with pleasure Parade’s list of the “150 best Christmas songs of all time”.

Rankings are not equivalent to product comparisons in Consumer Reports. An education is not the same as a dishwasher. We can judge a dishwasher in terms of its expected reliability, washing, drying and energy consumption. This is not the case with an education.

I can compare my judgment with those who compiled the list and no harm done. But college rankings are a whole different matter. By touching the hot buttons of elitism and snobbery, they do real damage.

Rankings are not equivalent to product comparisons in Consumer Reports. An education is not the same as a dishwasher. We can judge a dishwasher in terms of its expected reliability, washing, drying and energy consumption. This is not the case with an education.

So what should future students do? For those obsessed with lists, there are better informed rankings. The Washington Monthly listings are an improvement over US News, but all rankings have flaws. Technology makes it easier to find colleges and universities. For those looking for MBA programs and want to compare Temple Fox School of Business, Penn’s Wharton School, and Arcadia University’s School of Global Business, visit the websites. There you will find information on course offerings, faculty and accreditation.

For students and families choosing undergraduate colleges and universities, I suggest searching the following web pages:

  • How does the school describe its first year program? Does it offer small classes taught by full-time faculty members?
  • Does the college or university describe writing throughout the curriculum, a sure sign that undergraduate study is important?
  • Does the college or university focus on mentoring? Does it offer opportunities to build social capital? Will counselors help students shape their lives?

Beware, of course, of MBA and undergraduate programs that tout their rankings in US News and World Report.

For colleges and universities, I urge boycott US News polls. Be respectful and courageous. Follow the lead of Reed University in Portland.

It would be very helpful if those who are now highly ranked by US News lead the boycott. Do not submit information for next year’s ranking. And stop advertising your current score. At the very least, stop structuring your strategic planning around moving up one or two places.

Years ago, as a senior administrator, I remember having to sit for hours on end with the president and other cabinet members trying to take the university a few steps forward. I am happy to report that the university in question has abandoned this practice. But many others continue to play with the system.

As you read about the Temple University scandal, think about the larger cultural issue of college and university rankings. Encourage the colleges and universities you support to strategically plan for student success, not magazine endorsement.


Elaine maimon, PhD, is the author of Leading academic change: vision, strategy, transformation. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.

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Header photo by R. Rabena / Visit Philadelphia