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I am not an employee of Inside Higher Education and have precisely no influence on what appears on its virtual pages – with the obvious exception of this blog – but nonetheless, I felt a small thrill of pride reading Scott Jaschik’s introduction to the cover by IHE of this year’s release of US News and World Report rankings.

The US News and World Report the rankings for 2023 were released today, and the top colleges are no surprise. As in previous years, Inside Higher Ed does not report ranking results due to widespread concerns about the validity of ordinary college rankings by a single number and a sense that the rankings favor wealthier institutions. (For those interested in the rankings themselves, we invite you to visit the magazine’s listings.)

I appreciate the principled stance of how information is conveyed. Obviously, a news agency dedicated to higher education can’t ignore the publication of these rankings, but neither does it need to uncritically parrot the actual ordinal rankings as news because they aren’t. not.

Just as I got a small jolt of something like pride from seeing how IHE handled the news, I get a little jolt of despair whenever I see the management of a higher education institution trumpeting its ranking. The number of schools and leaders I’ve seen do this is too long to list, but I appreciated Holden Thorpe’s comment on Twitter noting that any school between #3 and #17 on the last year’s list that boasts of jumping up one spot does so without noting the reason for their rise is that “Columbia committed fraud.”

Columbia dropped to 18th place after admitting that, as one of its own professors accuses, it had provided inaccurate data in previous years of the rankings. The New York Times frames the episode this way:

“Columbia’s public humiliation raises questions for many parents and education policymakers: Can college quality be ranked by a single number, the same way critics rate movies with stars? And should students choose where to go to college based on what has become an indicator of prestige? »

I think I gave a full frontal slap to that. I understand that the question is rhetorical, but, come on. Why pretend that there is any doubt or dispute as to whether or not the quality of a college can be ranked by a single number when in reality there is none?

Is there an education decision maker who Cordially believes that the quality of a college can be ranked by a single number?

As the IHE cover notes, there’s nothing new about schools getting caught playing the notes with incorrect data. Emory University (in 2012), Claremont McKenna College (the same year), and Tulane University (in 2013) have all been exposed before.

I personally worked at Clemson University when then-president James Barker had a mania for Clemson to get into the Top 20 public universities. Clemson didn’t submit erroneous data, but they played it by increasing the number of classes to fewer than 20 students in the fall when the data was reported, before pushing the caps back in identical classes to 22. or 24 for spring, adding the equivalent of one workload for those of us teaching four class sections.

Students who took these classes in the spring were undoubtedly harmed by the practice.

The “you must be kidding me” part of the experience came when the provost met with non-tenured faculty so we could be asked to go get PhDs in our spare time so Clemson had more faculty in total with final degrees.

Could we then have access to tenure? No. A raise ? Be serious. Was a terminal degree necessary for the jobs we were asked to do? Obviously not, we already had the jobs. Would our teaching suffer when we pursue these free-time doctorates without the promise of security or increased pay? Undoubtedly!

Did anyone think about these things before throwing this nonsense at the non-tenured faculty who taught the bulk of the courses offered at the university? Ha!

On Twitter, I called the ranking meaningless, but that was an imprecise use of language. Of course, the ranking is significantin a sense, because otherwise people who know they are methodologically worthless would tout them as something they could be proud of?

So the rankings do have some significance in the world, but it’s a mirage, perhaps even more worthless than the preseason college football rankings, which still manage to deliver what looks like big upheavals because initial rankings are often based on history and vibes, rather than hard data.

The WE News rankings may not be meaningless, but they are certainly insubstantial. This is perhaps what bothers me the most, that higher education institutions are entangled in a system that requires them to pretend that anything with substances makes sense.

No one would mistake me for an idealist, and I am aware of the need for compromise to make less than ideal systems and circumstances work. I taught outside of the tenure track for nearly 20 years, after all.

But I don’t understand the eager embrace something that people know to be insubstantial, which they also know deep down is detrimental to the mission of their universities, making them less accessible, more expensive, less focused on teaching and learning and research, more focused on marketing and enrollment management.

I know it is too much to ask that the institutions decide en masse not to participate in the American News charade, but is it asking too much of institutions to stop fanning the flames of forces that will eventually destroy all but the wealthiest and most fortunate?

Buying into a competition for prestige that is actually based on wealth is not a winning hand for the vast majority of institutions that continue to play. The recent, much-needed action to write off some of the existing student loan debt is just the latest evidence that the current framework of post-secondary education as a private good aimed at building “human capital” is totally dejected, bankrupt, ruined.

And yet, on the day of the announcement of the rankings, like a reflex, here are the press releases filled with a new burst of blah blah.

Columbia ranked #18 is no different than Columbia ranked #2. The substance of the institution hasn’t changed except that they’re actually being honest with themselves and the world regarding their class sizes and the percentage of teachers with terminal degrees.

In a way, that makes Columbia superior to last year, but sorry, there’s no price for an honest self-assessment.

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