Wrecking the College Pecking Order: A former college president takes aim at U.S. News's elitist rankings and (sort of) praises the Monthly's.

AuthorKelchen, Robert
PositionBreaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It

Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It

by Colin Diver Johns Hopkins University Press, 368 pp.

Much of higher education has a love/hate relationship with college rankings: love them when their college does well, and refuse to recognize their existence if they ever drop a spot. But most colleges--and selective institutions in particular--play the rankings game in two key ways. First, they spend considerable time and effort putting together data for U.S. News & World Report to use in their annual rankings. Second, they often have an in-house research staff that is tasked with figuring out how to move up in the rankings as quickly as possible. Sometimes colleges juke their numbers, as evidenced by recent scandals at Temple University and the University of Southern California, in which programs submitted false data for years and are now facing lawsuits from irate students.

Enter Colin Diver. As president of Reed College in Oregon, he carried on the tradition of his predecessor by refusing to provide data to U.S. News and being willing to bear the consequences of not being highly ranked. After a long and distinguished career in higher education, he has written a book, Breaking Ranks, which is in part a treatise against prestige-based college rankings that drive colleges to make bad decisions and in part how he would like to evaluate colleges if he got the chance.

In my day job as an education professor and department head, I study higher education accountability while also experiencing firsthand the pressures to move up in the U.S. News rankings. But I have also moonlighted as the Washington Monthly's rankings guy for the past decade, which gives me perspectives into how the rankings industry works and how colleges respond to rankings. This made me excited to read this book, and it generally does not disappoint.

Diver focuses most of his ire at U.S. News, even though the title is a critique of the rankings industry as a whole. I had to chuckle at the Washington Monthly being labeled as a cousin to the 8oo-pound gorilla that is U.S. News. He devotes nearly half of the book to two lines of attack that are preaching to the Monthly choir: how rankings can reinforce the existing prestige-based hierarchy and encourage colleges to focus on selectivity instead of inclusivity. These are reasons why the Monthly started publishing college rankings nearly two decades ago, and we do get some credit from Diver...

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