No. The only thing that surprised me is that these data manipulators got caught. It takes an unusual set of circumstances to catch somebody doing this stuff. In the Columbia case, you had a faculty member with tenure who was increasingly skeptical of his own university’s claims of ascending the hierarchical ladder.
Somewhat more common is a disgruntled employee in a department of institutional research or provost’s office who comes forward, who smells evidence of fudging the data. Then the schools themselves come forward and admit it. They almost always say it was a mistake.
But the thing is, schools—especially selective and even elite ones—have very powerful incentives to do well in these rankings.
U.S. News has power for two reasons. The first is because [their] rankings are taken seriously by applicants. Why do applicants take them seriously? Because U.S. News got there first, and U.S. News made it news. The second reason has to do with timing. They started at the time when the market for college educations was becoming more national. Until somewhere around the 1970s or ’80s, even high-flying academic superstars would go to school within 100 or 200 miles of where they lived.
The only thing that surprised me is that these data manipulators got caught.”
Higher education has become a status-conferring industry—the major one, or certainly one of them. And U.S. News came along and said, We are going to be the official accountant of status in higher education. We’re going to be the status meter. And people—even the sophisticated ones and probably especially the sophisticated and economically and academically privileged ones—are seeking status.
Probably to some extent. It was always a kind of niche school, but it was very small, so it didn’t have to have mass appeal. It appealed to the very brainy, academically ambitious kids interested in ideas—in digging deeply to understand something better than almost anybody else. That constituency is small enough that, if you establish yourself in that space and have a national reputation, that carries you along.
But undoubtedly, some of those people saw that Reed was tanking in the rankings—since U.S. News would rank us using whatever data they could actually get their hands on—and applied elsewhere.
There were two front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal about U.S. News punishing us by dumping us in the bottom quartile of the rankings. That caught everyone’s attention in higher education. U.S. News succeeded in making its point, and that proved to be a deterrent.
Well, it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. But the selective colleges that are the focus of the book are really quite intensely competitive. This is a competitive industry. Colleges are competing first of all for prestige and status. They’re of course competing for students of a certain kind. They compete, many of them pretty intensely, for faculty. They compete for foundation grants. They compete for headlines. The rankings, in many ways, become a kind of win-loss percentage. It’s based on your actual performance in the field. It’s the win-loss percentage against the good teams.
The rankings themselves almost completely ignore race. If 10 percent of it was determined by the percentage of Black students, I bet you damn well that people would scramble to increase the percentage of Black students. And they don’t give schools like Amherst, which led the pack among elite liberal arts colleges in bringing in more low-income students who qualify for Pell Grants, enough credit.
I’m not going to tell you. But it’s a very highly regarded liberal arts college in the Midwest, I’ll give you that much.
I dislike the fact that at some schools, they give out merit aid while also not meeting the full demonstrated need of students who have applied for financial aid. The needy students in effect are paying for this merit aid strategy. I looked at the list of U.S. News universities from about 25 to 75, and I got data on the percentage of need that they meet with their financial aid packages, and you can see a clear falling off as the amount of merit aid they’re giving is increasing.
You might say they won the game that matters to them.
Simply serving lower-income students of academic quality wasn’t the game that ultimately mattered to them. The game that mattered to them was moving up in the prestige order of things. But give them credit for playing the game successfully.
This is the American system, right? You negotiate for real estate. You negotiate for used cars. You negotiate for college. I get it. But I really don’t like the kind of secret deal-making, student by student, which is what I think is going on in a lot of these places.
Is buying a house simple? Is choosing a life partner simple? This is on a scale of that magnitude.”
I think that’s right. One of my biggest complaints about the rankings phenomenon is its claim that you can simplify the process of choosing a college. Is buying a house simple? Is choosing a life partner simple? This is on a scale of that magnitude. This is big.
I call it a “life experience,” not just a consumer product. It is the life transformation from being dependent on your family to becoming independent. It’s about coming to discover much more about who you really are and figuring out how to regulate yourself and not simply be dependent upon parents or grandparents breathing down your neck.
You’ll change jobs seven times; you’ll change careers five times. You have to rediscover yourself and redefine yourself. So I do think that college is about equipping you for that, not just preparing you for the first job that you get or preparing you to get into graduate and professional school so that you can then discover yourself for another two or three years.
No, look: He’s very successful at what he does, and he’s been doing it for a very long time. The fact is that I figure he’s heard it all before—he really has. And they’ve just learned that they don’t really need to respond to these criticisms. They’ve got an enterprise that seems to work.
Ron Lieber ’93 is the author of The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. He’s been the Your Money columnist for The New York Times since 2008.
Illustration by Andrea Cobb
Photographs by Jessica Scranton