An essay in today’s NY Times by David Leonhardt is generally dismissive of the U.S. News college rankings:
By now, 23 years after U.S. News got into this game, the responses have become pretty predictable. Disappointed college officials dismiss the ranking as being beneath the lofty aims of a university, while administrators pleased with their status order new marketing materials bragging about it — and then tell anyone who asks that, obviously, they realize the ranking is beneath the lofty aims of a university.
There are indeed some silly aspects to the U.S. News franchise and its many imitators. The largest part of a university’s U.S. News score, for instance, is based on a survey of presidents, provosts and admissions deans, most of whom have never sat in a class at the colleges they’re judging.
That’s made it easy to dismiss all the efforts to rate colleges as the product of a status-obsessed society with a need to turn everything, even learning, into a competition. As Richard R. Beeman, a historian and former dean at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued, “The very idea that universities with very different institutional cultures and program priorities can be compared, and that the resulting rankings can be useful to students, is highly problematic.”
But Mr. Leonhardt doesn’t quite get it, because the status obsession isn’t irrational. As I previously pointed out, the most prestigious college degrees lead to the best life outcomes.
For people who attend college just to party for four years, nothing is more important than the college’s prestige. Four years of partying at a community college is just a big waste, but four years of partying at Yale can lead to a job as President of the United States.
Mr. Leonhardt suggests some supposedly better ways to rank universities, and while that would be useful, it would be even more useful to rank students in addition to ranking universities. Each graduating student should take standardized tests, both general and specific to his major, and these tests should be certified and available to employers, so employers could hire the most educated students instead of the most prestigious degreed.
However, if we are going to rank universities, the way I see it the only really important criterion is how much money someone with a specific major will make when he graduates. Every college should report labor force outcomes, broken down by major, and the results should be audited by independent auditors and reported in a standardized format so colleges can be compared.