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The US News rankings are terrible for students. Why don't colleges stop them?

Jens Schlueter
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The US News rankings are out. Princeton is No. 1, as it was last year, and the year before that; a few colleges shifted infinitesimally from rank to rank, and soon college presidents will begin to downplay the importance of the rankings at all.

And then, privately, they will start scheming about how they, too, can climb next year.

The usual critique of rankings is that they're meaningless. But the problem is actually much worse. The rankings encourage a rogue's gallery of unethical behavior. Well-intentioned changes to the methodology won't fix them. The proliferating rankings from other publications won't dethrone them.

But the good news is that the US News rankings are not, in fact, an unstoppable juggernaut. Colleges themselves could cripple the rankings — if they were brave enough to try.

The US News rankings lead colleges to lie

The US News rankings are influential. Studies have found they impact both where students apply and where they actually attend. That strong influence may explain why colleges aren't always honest when they tell US News about themselves.

Since 2012, five colleges admitted to falsifying data they submitted to US News. These weren't one-off typos or brief ethical lapses. They were systemic campaigns of misinformation that lasted for years, mostly located at colleges that are generally well-known but aren't quite Ivy League caliber — the kind of place where rankings really matter.

Bucknell University (no. 32 on the US News list of national liberal arts colleges) admitted to submitting six years' worth of inflated SAT scores. For eight years, Claremont McKenna College (no. 9) inflated students' class rank and claimed the college rejected a higher proportion of applicants than it actually did. Emory University (no. 20 on the list of national universities) had been inflating the qualifications of its freshman class since at least 2000. George Washington University (no. 51) did the same for at least a decade.

"We have no reason to believe that other schools have misreported data," US News said in a blog post published after four of those instances were uncovered. College admissions officers themselves suspect the dishonesty is more widespread: 91 percent said in a survey conducted by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed that other colleges (although not their own, of course) were probably lying too.

The real scandal is what the colleges who don't lie do

But the worst thing is it might be more ethical for a university to just lie to US News than to climb the rankings through putatively honest means. Putting rankings front and center leads colleges to increase tuition and spend the money on things that have little to do with education, all while encouraging prospective students to apply whom they have no intention of accepting.

At least lying doesn't actively hurt the students you are trying to educate.

Starting in the 1990s, Northeastern University set out to reverse-engineer US News' formula, according to a recent article from Boston Magazine's Max Kutner. Then they did everything they could to climb the rankings. They lowered the enrollment cap on classes to 19, because 20 students is no longer seen as a small class in US News' eyes. They began using the Common Application, which makes it easier for students to apply — at a cost of $75 per application, of course — so that they could turn more students away. When that wasn't enough, they spent liberally on recruiting in the US and abroad, hoping to become ever-more selective.

Admitted students with so-so high school grades and SAT scores were encouraged to study abroad for their first semester in a newly created program, because students who start in the spring don't count for US News purposes. Meanwhile, the university's former president went out of his way to meet leaders of highly ranked colleges and even lobbied US News itself to tweak its formula to benefit Northeastern.

It worked. Northeastern rose from 162nd in 1996 to 49th last year.

And Northeastern wasn't the only one. Clemson University took similar steps, shrinking classes from 25 students to 19 while letting enrollment grow in others. It increased tuition in order to pay faculty more. Because the rankings take alumni giving rates into account, they hired an outside company to help find alumni who weren't donating. That cost money, of course. The university even engaged in some sabotage, purposefully giving lower marks to competitors when it was asked to evaluate them for US News' survey.

"We have walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting," said Clemson's former institutional researcher, Catherine Watt, who left the university in 2013,  at a conference in 2009, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Some might argue that they crossed that line a long time ago. But Clemson rose from 38th among public universities in 2001 to 21st last year.

Along the way, both colleges made some beneficial changes. Northeastern hired more faculty, for example. They also spent $1 billion on new dorms so that students could live on campus, which makes them more likely to graduate. It's possible students at Clemson really did benefit from being in a class of 19 instead of 25. But those benefits accrued almost by accident.

In each case, according to reports, presidents said climbing the rankings was the primary goal. Clemson's mission statement says the university is "committed to the personal growth of the individual and promotes an environment of good decision making, healthy and ethical lifestyles, and tolerance and respect for others … shaped by a legacy of service, collaboration, and fellowship."

Clemson's vision statement is simpler: "Clemson will be one of the nation's top 20 public universities." On its website, the vision statement comes first.

Lots of costs, no clear benefit

It should be no surprise that colleges lie and cheat and game the system. That's not necessarily a reason the rankings shouldn't exist. If we got rid of programs because they could be gamed, we'd have no financial aid to attend college, no college admissions process — in fact, no social safety net.

But in most of those cases society has decided the benefits outweigh the potential dishonesty. So far, the consensus is that it's better for colleges to choose students deliberately and not at random; that society is better off if more people can afford college; that people should not go hungry in the US. If the system doesn't work perfectly every time — if there are reports of waste or fraud or gaming the system — well, that's the price we're accepting in exchange for the benefits we reap.

What benefit do we reap from US News? Perhaps the rankings help students choose among colleges. That might be true for the handful of students with the academic abilities to get into the top universities and the financial means to afford them. But even if it is, research has found that going to a more prestigious college usually doesn't make a difference in how much students earn.

Even if determining prestige were an essential task, the US News rankings mostly confirm existing prejudices. When the federal government tried to rate colleges in 1911, it picked a cream of the crop that persists in the US News rankings today. In a draft of early US News rankings, a lesser-known college once topped the list. According to a Washington Monthly article published in 2000, the statisticians quickly changed the methodology to better reflect existing perceptions. The US News rankings are a system precisely calibrated to tell us what we already know.

"College rankings aren't dangerous or misguided so long as they are used prudently, safely and appropriately," former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg told The Atlantic in 2011. "They shed some light: they are interesting, entertaining, useful sources of gossip, and helpful for puffing but they shouldn't inform the decision about where a student decides to matriculate, at least not definitively."

So college rankings are useless, but fun to gossip and argue about. On the other hand, they have a documented history of encouraging unsavory behavior at universities whose presidents should want to discourage it. It's hard to argue the benefits outweigh the costs.

How to end the influence of US News once and for all

US News has tried to respond to criticism over the years, but the company will never voluntarily slaughter its cash cow. And it's unreasonable to ask it to do so now.

Happily, there's a trick — ending the dominance of US News rankings doesn't require the magazine to do anything. All it requires is that good college presidents do nothing.

One of the two biggest components of US News rankings is the score for a college's reputation.To get that number, US News asks colleges to fill out a survey indicating their opinions of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other institutions. (They ask the same of high school guidance counselors.) Along with the survey, colleges submit other information about themselves, including their average freshman SAT and ACT scores and grade-point averages, the proportion of alumni who donate, and the proportion of applicants they admit. Cooperation rates are extraordinarily high: 91 percent of the more than 1,300 ranked colleges submit this data.

Here's what college presidents have to do to break the fever: Stop. Just stop. Stop filling out the forms or allowing your employees to do so. Stop submitting the data. Stop collaborating with a system that encourages your subordinates to lie and cheat, that leads to a "vision" for your university focused solely on the arbitrary position you hold on a numbered list. You've had the power to end this madness all along.

Without colleges' cooperation, US News would be forced to rely on publicly available data that colleges report to the Education Department. The federal government doesn't ask about admitted students' high school class rank. Nor does it ask about alumni giving. The feds certainly don't ask colleges to evaluate their competitors' reputations.

In other words, much of the data would suddenly be out of reach. The rankings might not crumble entirely. But they would be forced to change, relying on the same publicly available information that competing ranking systems use.

It's possible for colleges to pull out. Reed College quit submitting data and surveys to US News more than a decade ago. US News retaliated at first, dropping the college out of its rankings entirely, but the college stuck to its guns. US News now sticks it somewhere in the second tier of liberal arts colleges. Yet Reed has not gone out of business; according to its former president, it is thriving.

Even if most colleges won't disarm unilaterally, as Reed did, higher education has proved it can organize effectively for collective action when necessary. Colleges have worked together many times to defeat government proposals they don't like. The logical conclusion is that their umbrella organizations have decided the power of a single ranking system is more fearsome and difficult to confront than that of the president and Congress combined.

Or perhaps college presidents are happy to have their cake and eat it too, denouncing the rankings in public and frantically trying to climb them in private.

Correction: This article previously said that the Education Department doesn't collect data on faculty-staff ratios or entering students' SAT scores. In fact, those data points are part of its annual surveys, so that data would still be publicly available even if US News quit asking for it. Additionally, Catherine Watt is no longer a Clemson employee; she left in 2013.