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Duke University Administrator Blasts the Rankings Game

Today’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features a commentary by John F. Burness, a former administrator at Duke, Cornell, and the University of Illinois. Burness critiques the rankings created by US News & World Report–and by newcomer, Forbes. While the rankings titillate and sell oodles of magazines, they do little to shed light on the differences among colleges.

While the article is password protected, I will offer a short snippet here that identifies what I think are his most salient criticisms of the US News ratings:

The undergraduate magazine rankings, in contrast, give considerable weight to perception and tend to be based on annual assessments, as if undergraduate-program innovations or tweakings manifest significant change in two semesters. But if the objective is to sell magazines, manifesting change is important. U.S. News has artfully—in the guise of improving the veracity of its rankings—made one or more changes in its methodology every few years, which enables it to argue that there is some shift in the quality of institutions that the new methodology has captured. The cynic in me says that the changing of the methodology is more a strategy for getting different results in the rankings, which helps the publication sell more copies. If the rankings stayed constant, why buy the magazines?

Moreover, the precision that U.S. News purports its methodologies reveal is, on the face of it, rather silly. If you look at the top 10 institutions, you will see that some of them are separated by small fractions of a percent. In the Olympics, those fractions make a difference, but it’s hard to understand how in the real-life breadth of activities of a university, they make any difference at all to a student. I have talked with many people at U.S. News who share my skepticism and, in some cases, are embarrassed by the magazine’s rankings. But they recognize that the rankings are a significant moneymaker. (The magazine has created separate rankings of graduate and professional programs, as well as research hospitals, not to mention books based on the rankings.)

I admit that I do sometimes use the rankings in my research of colleges, primarily because parents often ask me how this or that college is ranked in this or that category.

But I never let the rankings dictate which colleges I may (or may not) recommend for a particular student. For each student, there may be any number of great colleges that will amply fill their needs and aspirations.

First I get to know those needs and aspirations. Then I recommend colleges that will best suit the individual student.

Mark Montgomery
Independent College Counselor

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