Monday, July 18, 2011

The failures of the U.S. News college ranking system

The New York Times points out a major flaw in the U.S. News university ranking system. The article is about law schools, but it applies to their college rankings too.
From 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.

There are many reasons for this ever-climbing sticker price, but the most bizarre comes courtesy of the highly influential US News rankings. Part of the US News algorithm is a figure called expenditures per student, which is essentially the sum that a school spends on teacher salaries, libraries and other education expenses, divided by the number of students.

Though it accounts for just 9.75 percent of the algorithm, it gives law schools a strong incentive to keep prices high. Forget about looking for cost efficiencies. The more that law schools charge their students, and the more they spend to educate them, the better they fare in the US News rankings.
So, basically, universities are rewarded by U.S. News for not being cost-efficient. If they are cost-efficient, they get punished.

I have recently come to the conclusion that rewarding universities for being "selective" is another major flaw in the U.S. News college rankings. Taking smart students in and spitting smart students out is no great educational accomplishment. What should be rewarded is taking dumb students in and spitting smart students out.

By rewarding selectivity, universities get rewarded in the rankings for limiting access to education, rather than expanding it. Harvard, for example, has an endowment in the tens of billions of dollars. They could use that money to build university campuses throughout the U.S. or the world like the University of Phoenix does, but instead they invest their excess money in what is essentially a massive hedge fund. By restricting access to education, Harvard boosts its ranking. By expanding access to education, the University of Phoenix hurts its ranking.

I am certainly not suggesting that the University of Phoenix should be considered a highly-ranked school. I have no idea what the actual quality of their education is, but I am suggesting that universities should not be punished for taking the Bruce Lee approach of teaching anyone who wants to learn.

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