Reposted from an Op-Ed by Joe Nocera on nytimes.com.
The U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings came out earlier this month and — knock me over with a feather! — Harvard and Princeton were tied for first.
Followed by Yale.
Followed by Columbia.
It’s not that these aren’t great universities. But c’mon. Can you really say with any precision that Princeton is “better” than Columbia? That the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 6) is better than the California Institute of Technology (No. 10)? That Tufts (No. 28) is better than Brandeis (No. 33)?
Of course not. U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly. Or rather, it would be if it weren’t so pernicious.
Magazines compile lists because people like to read them. With U.S. News having folded its print edition two years ago, its rankings — not just of colleges, but law schools, graduate schools and even high schools — are probably what keep the enterprise alive. People care enough about its rankings to pay $34.95 to seek out the details on the U.S. News Web site.
And they imbue these rankings with an authority that is largely unjustified. Universities that want to game the rankings can easily do so. U.S. News cares a lot about how much money a school raises and how much it spends: on faculty; on small classes; on facilities; and so on. It cares about how selective the admissions process is.