How College Rankings Can Perpetuate Inequality
In 2017, the University of California, Berkeley, tied with UCLA as the number one public university in the country, according to the U.S. News & World Report 2018 rankings — the “kingpin” of college rankings lists, admissions experts say. Such accolades weren’t anything new for a school many still consider the crown jewel of the so-called public Ivies.
In July, months after Berkeley dropped to number two in the latest national public university rankings, Jua Howard, assistant director of admissions at Berkeley, told Forbes magazine that “the criteria utilized in rankings are subjective and often confusing” and that a college’s rank should not “dictate where a student applies and ultimately attends.” Juxtaposed with the university’s institutional messaging promoting the rankings, Howard’s comments speak to a system that both criticizes them and downplays their importance.
“Any admissions officer worth their position knows rankings like the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges list are capitalistic undertakings rooted in junk science,” wrote former Wesleyan University dean of admissions Jason England in a Vox editorial in May.
“[T]here are many excellent reasons to apply to Yale, but Yale’s position in the rankings is not one of them,” Jeffrey Brenzel, former Yale dean of admissions, is attributed as saying on the university’s website.
Just 10 days after Howard was published in Forbes questioning the worth of the rankings system, U.S. News & World Report released a statement saying that five schools, including Berkeley, had been misreporting their data to the publication for years, unfairly giving them higher places on the annual “best colleges” list, among other rankings, than the schools deserved. Berkeley, according to U.S. News, had inflated its alumni giving rate since at least 2014, when the school says data reporting requirements for alumni donations changed. The news broke about two months after the University of Oklahoma also forfeited its ranking for misreporting the same type of data to the publication for two decades (a former student is now suing the university for allegedly misleading her about its qualifications as an institution).
Although these types of scandals aren’t unprecedented, the latest bout of misreporting — especially by Berkeley, a school consistently ranked as the best public university in the country — has inspired a broader conversation about whether college officials care about rankings at all. Conventional wisdom fostered by many school officials is straightforward: The rankings are inherently flawed and therefore not important. But if the rankings supposedly don’t matter, why do these colleges even participate in the process of ranking themselves? And why is it such a big deal when they misreport data?
“It’s absolute nonsense that they don’t put a lot of stock into the rankings,” Brian Taylor, managing director of the college consulting firm Ivy Coach, told Teen Vogue. “The jobs of the deans and admissions officers depend on these rankings.”
If a school were to drop significantly in the U.S. News rankings, Taylor said, the dean of admissions at that college “wouldn’t be there for very long.” According to Taylor, downplaying to parents and students the importance of the rankings to college administrators is just part of their “M.O.”
“Any admissions officer who suggests that college rankings don’t matter, I wouldn’t believe anything else they say,” he added.
“Everybody in higher [education] thinks the rankings are awful … but they matter a lot,” said William Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale and Columbia and is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz served as a guest faculty member four years ago at Scripps College, one of the five schools removed from the 2019 U.S. News rankings in July. Scripps, like Berkeley, misreported alumni giving rates, giving the school a boost on the list.
A spokesperson for Scripps College provided Teen Vogue with a statement on the matter, saying in part, “The College proactively notified U.S. News of the error and provided corrected figures to rectify our mistake.” A communications official for Berkeley referred Teen Vogue to a release from the college after the misreporting scandal, which said, “As soon as we were aware of the matter, we reported it to U.S. News and provided corrected data. We regret the oversight and look forward to working with U.S. News regarding any additional steps that need to be taken.” The University of Oklahoma did not respond to Teen Vogue’s requests for comment, but a university spokesperson told the Washington Post in May that it provided updated figures to U.S. News immediately after discovering the discrepancies.
Although U.S. News has stated that misreporting scandals are rare, in recent years big-name schools like Tulane University, George Washington University, and Emory University have admitted to providing inaccurate data about measures like test scores and class rank. In 2012, Claremont McKenna College, a top liberal arts school and part of a consortium of seven colleges that includes Scripps College, admitted to exaggerating the SAT scores of its incoming freshmen to U.S. News, among other publications, for six years. The college’s vice president and dean of admissions immediately took full responsibility and resigned, the New York Times reported at the time.
Deresiewicz explains that college presidents are often at the forefront of misreporting cases because they personally bear the brunt when rankings take a nosedive. He likened their status to that of CEOs in the corporate world, comparing U.S. News rankings to share prices, the business world’s benchmarks of success.
“Somebody comes in from another school, from another part of the country, and they have five years to demonstrate, either genuinely or illusorily, that they’ve done a good job so they can go to the bigger institutions with more prestige and more money,” he said. “Raising the rankings is a key part of that.”
“Prestige is something that matters to college administrators,” Maria Laskaris told Teen Vogue. Laskaris, a former director of admissions at Dartmouth College and now a senior private counselor at Top Tier Admissions, said while the rankings aren’t anywhere near perfect, students often use them to build their lists of prospective schools. She said there is frustration among college administrators that students and families will overlook schools simply because they aren’t ranked highly enough.
Several current and former Berkeley students admit the school’s prestigious reputation did play a part in motivating them to look into the school.
“I definitely think Berkeley’s top-tier ranking initially pulled me in a bit further and made it difficult to entertain other offers from universities that were not ranked as highly,” Madeline Hayes, a rising junior and philosophy major at Berkeley, told Teen Vogue.
Aman Mohapatra, who graduated in May from Berkeley with a microbial biology degree, also told Teen Vogue the list “definitely played a role in my decision because of the prestige that came with the ranking for the school.” When Aman applied, the school had again been ranked as the top public university in the country — something it frequently touted.
“Schools, when they’re on the rise and things are looking good, trumpet [rankings] and then will minimize their importance when they’re lower,” former Yale admissions officer Ed Boland told Teen Vogue. “It’s not surprising.”
Boland said while he believes the rankings aren’t as important to “very, very established places” like “Harvard, Yale, or Princeton,” they do play a big role in raising the reputations of lesser-known schools. Before U.S. News stopped considering admit rates as a factor, Boland claims he’s seen smaller schools reject overly qualified students out of fear they would eventually decline to attend anyway, inevitably raising schools’ admit rates and hurting their status in the rankings.
“I’ve heard [of] situations where schools will not admit students they know have a very low chance of yielding,” he said. “I’ve seen some institutions where a student’s been admitted to five of the most selective institutions in the country, and then I’ll see the student rejected at a less competitive school.”
For the 2019 rankings, U.S. News & World Report eliminated acceptance rates, which previously held 1.25% weight, from its methodology formula in what it framed as an effort to “make room for the new social mobility indicators.” The importance of “outcomes,” which includes the graduation rates of Pell Grant students — a newly added indicator — was increased. But “expert opinions” — or how college administrators respond to completely subjective surveys about the reputations of peer institutions — remain one of the most important parts of the equation, though the weight they’re given was decreased. Test scores, which some allege can be easily manipulated to boost the rankings of “test-optional” schools, also still account for a significant percentage, nearly 10%when combined with high-school standing, as part of a measure referred to as “student excellence.”
“U.S. News & World Report evaluates the Best Colleges on 16 metrics of academic excellence,” Robert Morse, chief data strategist for the publication wrote in a statement to Teen Vogue. “Outcomes, including retention rates, graduation rates and social mobility indicators — whether schools are serving all of their students — are weighted the most heavily at 35%.”
While some schools did see a significant boost in the rankings after the changes — Howard University jumped 21 spots from the 2018 to the 2019 rankings — the top 20 slots continue to largely favor wealthy schools. Princeton took first place in the 2019 “best national universities” rankings; Harvard took second. Critics say the reforms weren’t enough. Six Democratic senators, including current presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, sent a letter to the publication’s editor, Brian Kelly, in December 2018, urging the publication to take further steps to address an approach that they say “prioritizes prestige and exacerbates America’s deeply ingrained and racialized wealth disparities.”
“Without an exclusive metric assessing the access a college or university provides to historically underrepresented students, deep inequities will continue to be masked,” the senators wrote. Kelly responded in a letter of his own and offered to meet with them, but with the 2020 rankings set to be released in September, a U.S. News spokesperson was unable to comment as to whether any further changes to the methodology are planned.
According to Morse, U.S. News & World Report has always maintained that “rankings are a starting point, [and] they are not the answer.” Finding that ever-elusive college “fit” requires more research than a simple data snapshot can provide. But as long as families worldwide are consulting U.S. News for advice on where to invest their time and money, the billion-dollar institutions competing for those resources will always care about their own popularity — regardless of how often they feign indifference.
“You should not take what colleges say about their attitude about the rankings at face value,” Deresiewicz said.