US News Rankings: Not Quite Ho-Hum

Well, the 2015 U. S. News & World Report rankings are out, and here are the elite Top 10 for “National Universities”:

1. Princeton
2. Harvard
3. Yale
4. Columbia
4. Stanford
4. University of Chicago
7. MIT
8. Duke
8. Penn
10. California Institute of Technology

And here are the rankings of the Top 10 liberal arts schools:

1. Williams
2. Amherst
3. Swarthmore
4. Wellesley
5. Bowdoin
5. Pomona
7. Middlebury
8. Carleton
8. Claremont McKenna
8. Haverford

Nothing to notice here.  Princeton was #1 last year and so was Williams.  Middlebury slipped from 4th to 7th, while Dartmouth fell out of the top 10 . . . to number 11.  My university, Emory, tied with Georgetown at number 21.

Of course, the admissions offices at Dartmouth would love to jump just one slot, and so would those at Emory and Georgetown.  It’s hard to say, “We’re a Top11 school [or a Top 21].”  Parents of high-achieving applicants check the U. S. News rankings closely, knowing how much status comes from the prestige of the school their children enter.  If corporate lawyer Bob tells his colleague Barbara that daughter Erin got into Brown and Barbara reports that her son Joe just received good news from Vanderbilt, the winner is unclear.  Brown and Vanderbilt are close in reputation for selectivity, and the current list has them tied at #16 (with Notre Dame).  But if next year one dips below the other, the game is over.

Admissions officers at the prized colleges know this, and it makes them acutely concerned about even the slightest drop in the annual lists.  They imagine conversations among parents, high school teachers, and academic counselors: “Hmm, Dartmouth fell out of the top 10 this year—only one spot, sure, but why?  Is something bad going on there?  Does this mean that next year we’ll see a further slide?”  Their customer population, ambitious 17-year-olds piling up AP courses and building resumes, plus their achievement-focused parents, cares deeply about how things look and what others think.  Elite programs make up a tiny portion of the higher education landscape, and the sensible approach to admissions is to take the top 50 or top 100 or top 200 in bulk and compare them to two-year colleges, second- and third-tier state universities, and liberal arts colleges with no national or even regional recognition.

But that isn’t how elite societies and cultures work.  Upon first entering them, they seem so superior (on many grounds—not all) to non-elite societies and cultures that you feel privileged and superior yourself.  But after a time, as you become acclimated to them, you begin to forget the other worlds.  In the case of top colleges and universities, you spend all your time within them.  How many students at Yale communicate with students at Southern Connecticut State University?  How many professors at Penn mingle with professors at Community College or Philadelphia?  Denizens of the elite spaces stick to one another, and so they no longer define their achievement against the outside world.  Rather, they compare themselves to one another, and because they have so many distinguishing markers in common (students with soaring SAT scores and swelling CVs, professors with books and lecture invitations), they have to seek out ever smaller distinctions and differentiations.

All the students have internships over the summer, but how many of them will be on the Hill?  Yes, all the professors have peer-reviewed publications, but are they by Harvard Press or Oxford?

This is why a tiny adjustment in the U.S. News rankings matters.  If we count all the institutions of post-secondary education in the United States, we have well over 3,000, which makes a drop of two spaces amount to a change of less than 0.0007 percent.  But if we count only the top 50, a drop in two spaces rises to a four percent loss in value.  The absolute drop is the same in both cases, but the relative change is negligible in the first, huge in the second.  We may laugh at the obsessiveness over the annual ladder, the questions raised over a gain or slide of a few spaces, but schools know better.  The dean of admissions at Tulane watches what Vanderbilt is doing, and Vandy monitors Emory, who watches UVA . . . and so do the parents and high school students.

But while the college officials have inside information and deep data to borrow upon, all the parents and students have is college guides, gossip sites such as www.collegeconfidential.com, and their own narrow experience.  U. S. News is still the most famous and relied-upon source, sometimes a factor in the crucial decision by Sterling Student admitted to two selective institutions to pick one over the other, say, Columbia at #4 over USC at #25.  Rarely do the U. S. News rankings deliver a surprise, and the staying power of the elite schools over the decades is one of the astonishing facts of higher education during an era of economic dynamism.  But that’s from a layman’s perspective.  For insiders, they are still crucial.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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