Higher education rankings threaten equity-based system

Like many of the American institutions we implicitly trust, our higher education system is widely assumed to be an engine of social good. Collectively, we get those squishy, feel-good reactions in reflecting upon such notable historical moments as the passage of the GI Bill (which, however, omitted veterans of color) and the expansion of educational access (which still excludes large numbers of talented students). Although the U.S. higher education system has never been a model of equity, making it such remains a worthy goal.

A seemingly benign media outlet may pose one of the greatest threats to the development of an equity-based higher education system: U.S. News & World Report.

Over the past three decades, U.S. News & World Report has been remarkably successful in establishing itself as the preeminent authority on college rankings. In doing so, the magazine has created a perverse incentive structure in which law schools and colleges are pushed to concentrate on improving short-term rankings at the expense of long-term visions of student success and engagement. This ranking system has allowed for the cementing, rather than the dismantling, of privilege under the guise of objectivity and fairness.

A 2018 study conducted by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found that many of the metrics relied upon by U.S. News & World Report were arbitrarily weighted and did not accurately represent the quality of the institution or student outcomes. In contrast, the research suggests that college engagement in the form of meaningful opportunities for learning — including internships and mentorship — has a far greater correlation to positive student outcomes than the institution that a student attends.

The concern regarding the widespread adoption of U.S News & World Report in determining educational quality prompted six U.S. senators to publicly encourage the adoption of a fairer evaluation process. Changes have been negligible at best.

Among public institutions operating in resource-constrained environments, the effects of the ever-escalating political pressure of the next rankings cycle has had especially disastrous effects on those students whom they are intended to serve. Counter to the mission of public colleges, flagship universities have developed what can only be characterized as an obsession with climbing the rankings.

The collegiate arms race will result in mutual destruction, beginning first with historically underrepresented students. During my tenure at a flagship public law school, I observed first-hand the precipitous decline in the concern for a student-centered education that accompanies a rise in national rankings. As resources were systematically shifted to artificially inflate rankings metrics, the level of student support proportionally fell. Those students most harmed were also the most vulnerable and in need of resources. The ranking improvement of the institution perpetrated dissatisfaction among students, staff and faculty, all of whom lacked the influence to rival the prestige of U.S. News & World Report.

I don’t suggest that data doesn’t matter or should not be available for public consumption. But when data is selectively compiled, massaged and then re-released, lacking transparency or context, back into the public sphere, its value should be considered significantly diminished. Instead, U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings are embraced as infallible.

A single entity given unbridled and unquestioned authority should not be allowed to determine an institution’s worth.

This first appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

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