Imagine a world without rankings

Imagine there’r no rankings
It’s easy if you try
No more US News
Above us just IPEDS
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Libby Nelson at Vox has written elegantly about the US News & World Report rankings of America’s Best Colleges. She points to the fact that the rankings lead colleges to lie and they cause institutional leaders to focus on the wrong things. Finally, Libby calls for a boycott of US News surveys.

I just don’t see it happening.

I know I am middle-aged and bitter, and have occasionally been accused of a cynicism that is matched only by my tendency towards rank empiricism, but I’ve known Bob Morse a long time and I’ve known a lot of college presidents. What I don’t know is the necessary difference between a parasitic relationship and a symbiotic relationship. Especially when the potential parasite is not easily identifiable as such.

Imagine there’s no rankings
It isn’t hard to do
No reputation surveys
And no climbing walls too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

More importantly, the desire to compare is taught to us as children. “See the apple, it is different from the orange.” Comparison is second nature and when there are many things to compare, we try to place them in an ordered list for simplicity.

But you know, US News didn’t exactly dream all this up. Colleges and presidents were using many of these metrics already. “Come to our college, we have a lower student to faculty ratio than other colleges.” All USNWR did was organize and systematize the metrics, and then put them into a numeric order. If they hadn’t done this, somebody else would have. Further, if USNWR America’s Best Colleges goes away tomorrow, somebody else will step in.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no student debt
I wonder if you can
No need for PLUS or Stafford
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

Just about every college has one or more peer groups for internal rankings. In Virginia, the public institutions have formal peer groups for faculty salary recommendations and targets (60th percentile of the peer group). Sooner or later, someone would attempt to the monetize these peer groups and create rankings. The specter of a national rating simply adds fuel to this…especially as a way to validate the rankings or the ratings.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Finally, Libby makes this excellent point:

Even if most colleges won’t disarm unilaterally, as Reed did, higher education has proved it can organize effectively for collective action when necessary. Colleges have worked together many times to defeat government proposals they don’t like. The logical conclusion is that their umbrella organizations have decided the power of a single ranking system is more fearsome and difficult to confront than that of the president and Congress combined.

Or perhaps college presidents are happy to have their cake and eat it too, denouncing the rankings in public and frantically trying to climb them in private. We’ll know in a few days, when the cycle begins again.

Public college presidents like having the rankings to use with/against state policymakers. They are just another tool they can use to claim external validation of either how wonderful they are, or how under-resourced they are. Of course, the same arguments work with governing boards, whether public or private.

I’m afraid that rankings are here to stay. After all, Imagine rose to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is also ranked as one of the 365 greatest songs of the century. A Guinness survey has ranked it as the second best song of all time. And these are not all the rankings by any means – and I am pretty sure that rankings were not John Lennon’s goals.


Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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