The past few months have been rough for university and college rankings. Between last November and now, U.S. News and World Report has lost the participation of the law schools of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley and the medical schools of Harvard, Columbia and UPenn—and many other formerly high-ranking institutions beyond that.
The universities’ explanations for their withdrawals had a forcefulness and moral aspect that rarely appear in official statements: The methodology was open to “manipulation and misrepresentation,” had “little connection to the values or the quality of the school’s educational program,” and even stood in the way of the correcting the nation’s “extreme health disparities.”
Heavy words, and not necessarily wrong ones. Despite all this well-founded criticism, more medical and law schools have stayed put than withdrawn. Why the hesitation to leave a fundamentally flawed system? I would argue that at this moment caution is the right move—and that the universities who have remained within the USNWR rankings continue to act in their own best interest, and in that of the students.
First, note what the withdrawing universities have in common: They are all household names. Yale Law can afford to march away from the list, having earned the top ranking and benefitting from centuries of reputational burnishment. This is not so for any given regional university, who may offer world-class training but whose name isn’t quite so lauded as Harvard’s. For these schools rankings are key to conferring both awareness and legitimacy.
It is also instructive to take a step back and remember how standardized rankings can serve students. Contrary to the protestors’ assertions, the rankings actually demystify higher ed. Consider that not every aspiring lawyer or doctor has the cultural or economic background that would give them a rough idea of the perceived relative quality of most universities. The children of doctors and lawyers, students from wealthy communities, the graduates of private high schools and elite colleges—these are people who will roll their eyes when you tell them that Rice, for instance, is a great school: Of course it is. They know people who went there.
But equally talented and deserving students from less education-rich backgrounds may find themselves at a disadvantage should they seek to assess a totally unranked system of hundreds of law and medical schools (to say nothing of the thousands of universities), based on nothing but hearsay. Thus, rankings introduce a useful, if flawed, bit of transparency into an opaque system of higher education.
For most universities, then, the question becomes not whether to stay in, but how to stay in. Those schools can follow a few simple education & college pr guidelines to continue to get the most out of their continued participation:
1. Celebrate your wins
Due to the recent flood of bad press, many schools are shy about touting success in rankings. They shouldn’t be. A win is a win, and students, peer institutions and employers will understand that progress through even a flawed system is still progress. When the University of Illinois at Chicago recently rose four points in USNWR’s Public Colleges list, their statement made sure to note that they got particularly high marks for two of UIC’s core-mission qualities: “[low] graduate indebtedness and [high] social mobility.” Such positioning drives home that these evaluations aren’t just about reputation but actual student impact. They make the rankings matter.
2. But be honest about the systems’ shortcomings
NYU Tandon School of Engineering has made impressive progress through USNWR’s engineering school rankings. While Tandon’s blog post about their most recent boost rightly highlighted recent discoveries at the school, Dean Jelena Kovačević’s quote measures celebration with informed skepticism:
“When it comes to rankings, I’m always torn, as I think most deans are. On the one hand, I recognize and appreciate their value, and on the other, I don’t think any number will ever do justice to our community’s accomplishments. Regardless, I am proud to see our steady climb to number 33 in the just-released U.S. News and World Report rankings.”
This statement strikes the right tone, embracing the win while at the same time simply acknowledging that any major university or college can’t be evaluated with a single number grade.
3. Work toward a better system
To Dean Kovačević’s point, there is something precious about USNWR’s year-to-year adjustment of the rankings of major research universities. These institutions are not speedboats, they are aircraft carriers: They do not turn on a dime. And the quality of learning and teaching at any given law school or medical school is unlikely to significantly rise or fall from year to year. But there are ways of evaluating schools that could provide a more accurate picture and don’t needlessly pit them against each other—for instance, rather than ranking them, giving them letter grades that are broadly reflective of outcome and quantity. Pressure and collaboration from universities can create a new and more functional system.
USNWR’s rankings were long overdue for today’s small revolution. There is no doubt that they would benefit from better data, more rigorous methodology and a healthy, ongoing skepticism of the listings. But that does not mean they are without value—not only for the universities that remain on the list but for prospective students and employers as well.