U.S. News and the Perils of Input-Based Rankings

Princeton: Smart kids, fancy buildings, but do they actually teach well?

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The new U.S. News & World Report college rankings are out and without rehashing the many longstanding and excellent criticisms of the list, I think it’s worth dwelling on one thing the list gets right. If you look at the top five or top 10 or top 25 national universities you’ll see what you always see—a bunch of very well-endowed institutions with very famous well-known brands that reject a very high share of their applicants.

This is not an unscrupulous editorial process or a mistake of some kind. It reflects, broadly speaking, the real consumer demand for traditional four-year college students and their parents. People want to attend schools that have high-quality inputs. That means spending money on salaries for well-known professors and for low teacher-student ratios. But it first and foremost means attending a school that’s hard to get into. That means spending money on merit-based scholarships, and spending money on student services. What it does not mean is investing money in cost-effective teaching strategies.

The essence of the radical agenda on higher education that the Obama administration rolled out this summer is to try to change that. He wants to ask schools not “how smart were the 18 year-olds who entered your school” but “how much did your graduates learn while they were in school.” He wants to ask not “how much money did you spend on ancillary services” but “how cost-effective did you make your education by focusing on the essentials.” My sense if you look at the commercial success of the US News rankings over the years is that this is not going to make a big impact among the kind of schools that end up near the top of this list. People don’t want a discount college for their kids, and people do want the kind of inputs-based ranking that U.S. News is giving them.

But traditional students are actually a minority of higher education enrollees these days. The best way to think about the Obama agenda is probably as a much-needed corrective to the mistaken over-extension of the U.S. News model to nonelite institutions, to institutions serving adults, to institutions with heavily part-time students, and to other growing sectors of the education industry. These kind of institutions are not luxury brands, and their students aren’t engaged in conspicuous consumption. They need real information about the value proposition, and that means focusing on outputs rather than inputs.