INTRODUCTION: A DIFFERENT KIND OF COLLEGE RANKING: America needs a new definition of higher education excellence, one that measures what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves.
Over the past year, a steady flow of institutions of higher education have withdrawn from U.S. News & World Report's increasingly troubled college rankings. First, in November 2022, several prestigious law and medical schools departed, including Stanford, Yale, Penn, and Harvard. Then, this past winter and spring, four well-regarded colleges-- Bard, Stillman, Colorado College, and Rhode Island School of Design--announced that they would no longer cooperate with the magazine's rankings. And finally, in June, Columbia became the first top university to stop participating in the undergraduate rankings, expressing concern about their "outsize influence." The latter wasn't the brave stand that it might have seemed--Columbia had fallen 16 places in the prior year's list after one of its professors revealed that administrators had been juking the stats--but no matter: After years of criticism over U.S. News's unreliable, prestige-obsessed reign over American higher ed, an exodus has begun.
What are these schools rebelling against? In their announcements, similar phrases pop up again and again: "outsize influence," "the tyranny of rankings." College administrators clearly resent the power that U.S. News has over how they run their institutions. But there was another current within the flood of "Dear John" letters, a sense that the rankings' priorities are hindering, not helping, schools' professed commitment to public service. Take Harvard, which objected that U.S. News's methodology makes it harder to "enhance the socioeconomic diversity of our classes" and "allocate financial aid to students based on need." Or take RISD, which complained that the metrics are "unambiguously biased in favor of wealth, privilege and opportunities that are inequitably distributed." To be sure, Harvard and, to some degree, RISD also embrace policies that are "unambiguously biased" toward the rich and powerful. (Legacy admissions, anyone?) But their paeans to the cause of inclusion speak to a broader shift in public opinion, a disgust with the self-serving institutions of the elite that can no longer be ignored.
The clamor for these changes is so loud that even U.S. News is listening. In May, the publication announced that it would begin tracking colleges' success in graduating students from diverse backgrounds and remove alumni donations and class sizes as factors in its rankings, among other measures. Small changes, but a recognition, at last, that something is fundamentally off.
Now more than ever, we need a better set of benchmarks for what "excellence" is in higher education, ones that measure what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves. The Washington Monthly's college rankings try to do just that, by rating institutions on their commitment to three goals: social mobility, public service, and research. Rather than laud the universities that mostly cater to the sons and daughters of the wealthy, we reward those that welcome students from everyday and low-income backgrounds and help them to graduate on time, with good jobs and low debt. Rather than rely on...
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