The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

Edward Fiske

Edward B. Fiske, who writes the Fiske Guide to Colleges (Sourcebooks), is a former education editor of the New York Times.

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