Rituals Performed for the Elite

The U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s “best” colleges and universities amount to nothing more than an annual ritual, a predictable coronation of entrenched wealth and power.
Even more importantly, for aspiring students and parents who hope to transcend their present class status, the yearly “guide” serves as the handmaiden to the elite. U.S. News rankings are like a public relations agency, a public persona standing at gates of admission to our “best” colleges, conveniently reminding aspiring Americans of the well-guarded paths to wealth and power.
Does anyone really believe that the students, parents and counselors at elite, mostly private, high schools pay any serious attention to the U.S. News rankings? Of course not. These schools and these families understand deeply how the system works and, especially, how to make the system work for them. They do not need U.S News to tell them which schools matter, and they follow the rankings with bemused disinterest.
That is not to say that the rankings are unimportant to elites. The annual ritual is a vital source of propaganda disguised by a pseudo-scientific calculation reminding our aspiring classes to “get in line and follow the rule” if they want a lottery chance at passing the gates. While the rankings purport to demonstrate to the public what separates good colleges form ordinary ones, the rankings are also the equivalent of the strict school marm, wagging her proverbial index finger at the strivers, the unwashed students and families who seek admission to the elite.
While the aspiring classes slavishly believe in its informative power, the rankings tell us little besides an institution’s wealth and prestige and position in the higher education hierarchy. According to U.S. News’s world view, a college or university is to be judged, not by what they actually do for students during their years on campus, such as how much chemistry, math, sociology and economics students actually learned while there.
Rather, in this upside-down world, colleges are judged by the “quality” of students they enroll. Quality, in essence, is measured by institutional selectivity – the percent of applicants who are accepted for admission. For the bulk of institutions in this universe, the direct correlate of selectivity is the average SAT score of entering freshman. The direct and powerful correlate of individual SAT scores is the cultural, educational and social capital which students acquire from their families. Families pass this human capital from generation to generation, and the so-called meritocracy is more than happy to oblige these privileges.
And so it goes, like a cascading river of wealth and power that obliterates all other considerations that bear on what higher education should mean in a democratic society. If one appreciates the status of inherited privilege, then let’s congratulate U.S. News on a job well done.

Judith Miller

Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.