Yale’s law school made the stunning announcement last week that it would no longer participate in the influential rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report. Given the outsize importance attributed to the rankings by prospective applicants and alumni, Yale’s decision sent shock waves through the legal profession, and indeed all of higher education. Yet the law schools at Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and Michigan quickly followed suit. Will the universities of which they are a part join the boycott? Will other colleges and professional schools do the same? Could this be the beginning of the end for college rankings?
I sure hope so.
Since their emergence in 1983, the U.S. News college rankings have grown into a huge juggernaut. They have withstood decades of withering criticism — from journalists, university presidents and the U.S. secretary of education — that the methodology ignores the distinctive character of individual schools and drives institutions to abandon priorities and principles in favor of whatever tweaks will bump them up a notch or two.
U.S. News has shrugged off repeated demonstrations that its scoring system, which rests on unverified data, can be gamed. Columbia University submitted inflated statistics, and won itself second place in the 2022 “Best National Universities” list — just the latest and most visible example of this phenomenon.
Though nearly all professional educators disdain the rankings, only a few maverick schools before last week had dared to pull out. U.S. News effectively punished them by coming up with its own statistics to plug into the ranking formula. After Reed College (of which I was once president) pulled out in 1995, its ranking plummeted from the top to the bottom quartile. Columbia, under fire for its apparent reporting discrepancies, chose not to submit data for the latest ranking, and its position dropped to No. 18 from No. 2.
Reed College managed to survive its fall — indeed to thrive — by wearing its rebellious stance proudly, as a sign of its fierce commitment to intellectual rigor. The impact of Columbia’s recent demotion remains to be seen. But two students have already filed