The US News Ranking Is All About Money

A terrific new episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History again tackles the US News college rankings.

As loyal readers of our college admissions blog have long known, we believe that college rankings — and the kingpin of the college rankings is the annual US News & World Report college ranking — are at the heart of the elite college admissions process. Want to know why colleges care so deeply about their endowments? Or their low admit rates? Or their graduation rates? Look no further than the components of the US News & World Report college rankings. Since the mid-1980s, these rankings have reshaped how young people and their parents around the world perceive universities and college admissions officers, in many concrete ways, reverse-engineer their rankings so as to rank highly. But what if these rankings were, well, racist? What if the math could show that the algorithm behind the all-important ranking blatantly perpetuates white privilege?

In his latest Revisionist History podcast episode entitled “Project Dillard,” Malcolm Gladwell, long a vocal critic of the US News ranking, uses Dillard University, an HBCU, as a case example in just how ridiculous the US News algorithm seems to be. As Gladwell details of the folks behind the US News ranking, “A not very sophisticated group of people in Washington, DC came up with a standard by which we measure higher education in this country and that standard is massively biased against people who want to serve underserved populations.” Dillard, of course, is ranked in the bottom rung of the US News Best National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking. The school, where three-quarters of its students are Pell Grant-eligible, one-third are first-generation college students, and almost all are Black, doesn’t exactly rank among the likes of Williams College, Amherst College, and Swarthmore College. And why’s that? Is it because the education at Dillard is so much better than, say, at Williams?

No, it all comes down to money, money, money. As Malcolm details with the help of a group of Reed College students and faculty who reverse-engineered the US News algorithm, the sheer size of the endowment — or the amount of money the school has in the bank — predicts half of the Peer Assessment Score, which as we recently detailed is a major component of a school’s ranking. In fact, Dillard’s low Reputation Score of 2.6 is adversely impacted by its low tuition, its small endowment, its relatively lower graduation rate, and ultimately its small percentage of white students on campus. But are these things true measures of a great education? Is the average alumni giving rate, the financial resources per student, faculty resources, the average graduate indebtedness — all components of the US News ranking — really predictive of a great educational experience?

At Dillard, as an example, tuition is relatively lower so more students can attend. Graduation rates are lower because in low-income families, sometimes a relative gets sick and a young person has to get a job to help out their family before finishing school. Should these things really hurt Dillard’s reputation? Isn’t this what ultimately makes Dillard the special place that it is, a place that educates the next generation of Black leaders? It’s ultimately Malcolm’s conclusion that if Dillard were interested in ranking near the top of the US News list, well, they’d just have to enroll a different kind of student. They’d have to enroll white, privileged students who would be full-pays and ultimately give back to the school and boost the endowment after their graduation.

And how does US News respond to the allegation that their ranking is basically all about money? Bob Morse, the wizard of the ranking, tells Malcolm, “You hardly ever hear a college president say cut my budgets, take away my programs, fire my faculty, reduce my sports, and I’ll be a better school. It’s rare that you see higher education leaders say less equals more.” It’s a fair point. But if Dillard had Williams’ endowment, the school would skyrocket from the bottom of the ranking to the middle of the pack. Yet would the Dillard education be perceivably different on account of the change to the endowment? Malcolm suggests it would not be — the school would simply use the money to expand the class size so as to educate more students, which would only increase its admit rate and hurt its US News ranking.

Additionally, Malcolm makes the point that the education is already arguably better at Dillard than it is at Harvard. Dillard graduates more African American physics majors than Harvard even though Harvard admits about the same number of African American young people — young people we should add who are plucked from the very top (Dillard is not receiving the same pool of talent yet is achieving this success in any case). The rationale behind this conundrum? Leakiness, as educators and Gladwell have long coined it (remember his Outliers: The Story of Success?). African Americans interested in the STEM field at Ivy League and other highly selective universities often give up on STEM because of the competitiveness, whereas at schools like Dillard, the school helps get them through the curriculum and “meet them where they’re at.” It’s why, as Malcolm details, “In STEM, Black schools punch way above their weight.”

Yet US News has concluded that the Dillard education doesn’t belong in the same sentence as a Harvard education. Or a Williams education. As Malcolm concludes, “Historically Black Colleges have managed to take that community feeling and translate it into a very effective academic culture…A school helps its students succeed at the subject they came to college to pursue. It creates a culture geared to helping students reach their potential. And it does all that for a price that working families can afford on a charming campus in the middle of an amazing city. Doesn’t that sound like the definition of an elite school?…Rankings place us all in a world with a clear set of rules, that more is better than less, rich is better than poor, white is better than black. None of us think we want to be part of that world. But when college presidents dutifully send in their forms every year to US News, when high school students battle with each other over who gets to go to the higher rank school, when parents boast about whether Jenny got into this school or that school, we’re all complicit in the game.” Well said, Malcolm.

But in an age of cancel culture, when Hollywood studios are being held to account for not producing television and movies for Black people by Black people, when companies across America are being asked to look within to see if their upper ranks reflect the diversity they wish to see, you’d think that US News, which publishes its rankings to sell magazines, could be held to account for an algorithm that blatantly discriminates against African Americans. And who precisely is to blame? Look no further than Bob Morse, the wizard of the US News ranking, who seems unapologetic about the fact that the rankings so clearly favor privileged, white Americans. Well, let’s cancel Bob Morse’s reign atop US News‘ ranking. For too many years, this man has published a ranking that hurts African American students and Historically Black Colleges. The times they are a-changin’ and it’s high time to change the leadership at US News. Thank you, Malcolm, for bringing this injustice to light.

But, Malcolm, we couldn’t help but happen to notice one thing. At the very end of the episode, you thanked one of your assistant producers. The young woman was also thanked by you in one of your recent books for her contributions. Tuned in readers of our college admissions blog may recognize the last name of this young woman. After all, some years ago, her father, a media mogul, made an inquiry to one of his subordinates — which was leaked through a famous hack — about making a donation to an Ivy League university as one of his children was soon applying. He later seemingly tried to help us all forget any of this happened. Practice what you preach, Malcolm. If you wish to create the equity in the world that you wish to see, well, you choose the people who work with you. And who wouldn’t want to work with the illustrious Malcolm Gladwell? We’re sure there would be a line out the door at an HBCU interested in an opportunity.

In any case, do have a listen below. It’s fantastic!

 
 

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