October 5, 2007

Take a number

Every year, colleges eagerly await the U.S. News & World Report rankings, with each school hoping to improve upon its previous year’s position. But while the rankings inevitably elicit giddy press releases from the schools that moved up, they also inevitably prompt irritated criticisms of the study’s methodology and relevance.

For the second consecutive year, the U of C made the top 10, this time tying for ninth with Columbia University. Unquestionably, universities—including ours—place too much emphasis on the rankings. Last year, when the U of C jumped from 15th to 9th, the news was publicized much more than was merited. Does it really matter if we’re in the top 10 instead of the top 15?

Critics of the U.S. News rankings are similarly guilty of taking the report too seriously. Much of the criticism is based upon the argument that a college-ranking system promotes a one-size-fits-all mentality. While this criticism is valid, an imperfect ranking system can still be useful. Admittedly, there is probably little difference between, say, the 17th and 18th spots, but there is a significant difference between the top 10 and the top 50 schools.

The important question is how the U of C should handle the rankings. Should we actively manipulate the system—maybe by capping classes at 49 to win points in the “Classes under 50” category—or should we reject the rankings and refuse to submit data to U.S. News? The University should follow a middle path. The rankings shouldn’t be dismissed—after all, a high ranking raises the University’s profile and aids alumni in the job market—but they shouldn’t be viewed as the defining measure of the U of C’s quality.

If the University hopes to continue to rise in the U.S. News rankings, the best strategy is simply to make the school better. The administration should shrink class sizes and solicit alumni donations not because we want a higher ranking, but because we want smaller classes and a larger endowment. Improve the school and the rankings will follow.