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It’s been a tumultuous year for U.S. News & World Report’s annual school rankings. Earlier this semester, the U.S. News rankings made news when a scandal at Columbia caused the Ivy League institution to drop from 2nd to 18th on the rankings. Now, along with other highly prestigious law schools such as Stanford, Georgetown, Columbia, Berkeley, and Yale, Harvard Law School has withdrawn from the U.S. News annual rankings.
As an Editorial Board that has expressed concern about higher education’s obsession with rankings in the past, we are glad to see that HLS shares similar concerns. We hope this news rings in a new era for higher education — one in which the pursuit of a high ranking does not supersede the imperative to provide a high-quality education to students.
Today, our culture’s emphasis on prestige has become so intense that the U.S. News rankings are a reliable predictor of the fates of graduating law students, from whether or not they will land a Supreme Court clerkship to their personal bargaining ability for salaries. Even the choice to attend a top-ranked law school now serves as a positive “signaling effect” on employers at large firms, regardless of the actual efficacy of the student’s education.
Prior to enrollment, rankings also create perverse incentives that may lead to the selective representation of data. The ability of applicants to make informed decisions suffers when administrators’ drive to portray their school as more accomplished in certain metrics than it actually is overpowers more accurate presentations.
Columbia’s controversy serves as a fresh warning. Beyond falsified data, misrepresented data lies just around the corner to fool students. Data surrounding levels of debt found amongst graduating students are often only half the story — countless university profiles often fail to account for debt relief programs, thus potentially skewing the applicant pool towards better-resourced students.
Rather than encouraging school selection, from the undergraduate to the professional degree level, based on what is best for individual students, our society at large has succumbed to chasing the mythical white whale of “the best university.”
Such a myth is perhaps one of the fundamental flaws of rankings: They perpetuate the stereotype of conformity to universal averages, or the idea that a particular set of priorities will, on average, matter to all people. As discussed by Harvard Education School professor Todd Rose, it’s a near impossibility for any one individual to conform to averages within all categories.
In the context of law school choice, it is essential to find a place that makes you happy — somewhere you will feel fulfilled and, accordingly, able to grow and learn. In our view, attempting to construct averaged metrics of these subjective goals creates an abstract and meaningless figure with limited probative value.
Still, we acknowledge that rankings can be beneficial when done well. Looking at centralized statistical information such as class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios, for instance, can encourage universities to develop smaller class sizes and lower student-to-faculty ratios that may translate into better educational experiences. Generally, centralized and standardized databases can help present students with critical information that unintelligible data and disorganized, subjective university websites fail to provide.
Still, universities should provide more user-friendly websites that present relevant information across categories (such as academics, student services, student happiness, socioeconomic mobility, and so on). Information accessibility ultimately benefits the university as well: When individuals are presented with more information, they are more able to prioritize their personal preferences rather than the factors emphasized by rankings. Applicants, for instance, may prefer smaller class sizes but not an urban campus; these are subtle comparisons that are more likely to occur when students can turn to university websites directly for targeted information as opposed to relying on unstandardized rankings that present themselves as universal.
In a future where ranking sites and university websites coexist to provide students with essential information, both should be well-organized, easily accessible, and standardized so as to not create confusing differentials. Following that same vein, both organizations like U.S. News and universities should work to identify the most useful data they can provide and edit their sites accordingly to maximize utility. In the possible scenario that universities will not take initiative to reorganize their display of information, consumer regulatory agencies should mandate information transparency — higher education, after all, is a booming industry where the rights of consumers (students) should be protected, especially given the student debt crisis.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls on universities to be more transparent and to provide clear, useful metrics in readily accessible ways. This would maximize the benefits — access to centralized information, ability to compare competing schools, and awareness of oft-overlooked institutions — while avoiding the pervasive harms, such as lost autonomy in the application process, ill-informed decisions from incomplete data, and falling into the trap of prestige over personal satisfaction and success.
In a world driven by numbers, we should strive to limit the influence of abstract rankings and begin to prioritize our own happiness. Following in the footsteps of HLS, we must break ranks.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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What, Like it’s Hard?: HLS leaves U.S. News & World Report … – Harvard Crimson