The federal government tried to rate colleges based on their quality in 1911, a public relations debacle. The story can give you déjà vu — not just because the Education Department is now trying to do the same thing, but because the reputations of most of the universities the government rated have been stable for more than 100 years.
Duke sociologist Kieran Healey put the ratings from the 1911 Babcock Report and the US News rankings side-by-side at Crooked Timber:
The chart only shows universities that existed when the federal government rated colleges in 1911. Some of the top-ranked universities in US News are relative newcomers, Duke and Vanderbilt among them.
Still, the fact that a chart from 1911 — when 3 percent of Americans went to college — could so accurately predict the reputations a century later of the universities it did rate illustrates a central problem with ever-popular college rankings.
One of the most important variables in the US News ranking is a college's reputation among other college administrators. Rankings that don't include this component often end up with a Top 10 list that looks quite different. Money magazine's recent rankings named Babson College the best college in America based on the quality and price of its education and the outcomes for its graduates. Washington Monthly, which ranks based on how much good colleges do society, says the University of California at San Diego is the best.
These ranking systems are great at challenging what we value about what colleges do. But it's not clear how much they drive behavior: very few people are going to look at Money magazine's list and conclude that Babson is really better than Harvard. The US News and Princeton Review rankings, though, appear to actually affect where students apply to college.
For colleges, that's the outcome that really matters. Reputation counts, and the 1911 ratings show that reputation is remarkably durable. In fact, reputation is so durable that US News tweaks its methodology regularly — in part to address concerns and criticism, but also to gin up some suspense about what that year's results will bring.
Otherwise, the rankings could be the same year after year, particularly at the highest levels. The uppermost top tier of US News includes many universities whose reputations have been set for more than a century. These charts suggests the chances of breaking into that echelon are low — and colleges that are spending tuition money, changing their admissions procedures, or otherwise trying to push their way into the top might better use that energy to improve in other ways.