John Garvey remembers the day he met with Bob Morse, the man behind the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
Garvey was perturbed not by how his school, Boston College, had fared in the rankings; he was worried about its law school.
Along with its signature Best Colleges rankings, U.S. News publishes another compendium called Best Graduate Schools. It’s prepared on a separate calendar, published on a different date and received with bated breath by deans across the land.
College presidents brace for backlash from trustees and alumni when their institution slips a spot or two in the premiere collegiate rankings. Within the smaller universe of professional schools, the effect is considerably more intense.
Garvey met with Morse a decade ago, in a year that had seen the Boston College law school drop about five places in the rankings and “it seemed like the sky was falling.”
U.S. News rankings of law, medicine, business and education schools largely define the pecking order in each of those disciplines, according to deans. There’s little movement at the top of each list; farther down, smaller programs with tiny statistical fluctuations can rise or fall five or 10 positions in a single year, setting off a firestorm among fretful alumni and a round of heartburn among administrators.
Garvey, who is now president of Catholic University of America, was then dean of Boston College Law. He sought a meeting with Morse to talk about why the school had fallen so precipitously.
He suspected, and Morse confirmed, that the program had fallen largely because of a single metric, the share of graduates who had found jobs. That statistic makes up a healthy share of the rankings; many good programs boast employment rates near 100; a program whose employment rate drops a few points can plummet in the rankings. Boston College Law currently ranks 27th on the U.S. News list.
“If you have two fewer people who get a job in a year,” Garvey recalled, “you can drop 40 places in the ordinal ranking in that category.”
He and Morse had “a very pleasant and useful conversation,” Garvey said. The dean humbly suggested Morse might consider using a three-year average of employment rates to soften the impact of a single down year. Evidently, Morse did not concur; the current survey methodology page suggests the publication still bases its rankings on one year’s data.
“I’m sure I was just one in a long line of deans who queued up to talk to him about why they weren’t doing as well as they thought they should in the rankings,” Garvey said. “Deans worry about it, because prospective students attach way too much significance to minor differences in the rankings.”
Michael J. Feuer is the new dean of the George Washington University education school, which ranks 35th on the U.S. News list. He, too, worries about rank. “Yeah, the rankings matter to me. And most of my fellow deans here say the same thing,” he said.
The rankings have their origins “in a very healthy human instinct, which is to hold institutions accountable for their performance and their quality,” he said. But the high statistical gloss of the publication creates the impression “that these rankings have real scientific meaning. And they don’t. And that’s the rub.”
Feuer has sat in conference rooms filled with ed-school deans who have tried very hard to convince Morse that ranking education schools is not a good idea. But the rankings endure, and they sell, and they ultimately influence the behavior of the deans.
“I’m trying hard to not let the rankings dictate what we do here,” Feuer said.
Doug Guthrie is dean of GW’s business school, ranked 52nd by U.S. News. Guthrie is a relatively new dean. “And, actually, I think a lot more about them now than I did before,” he said, “because as a dean, you have to think of these things.”
There is talk across academia of college administrators playing to the rankings: investing in improvements designed to raise an institution’s rank. That’s more easily done in a small professional school, where it is theoretically possible to create big gains simply by engineering each year’s entering class. One easy way is to admit fewer students, favoring those with the highest test scores and grades. A business school dean who does that can improve the numbers across several categories: GPA, GMAT score, acceptance rate and, indirectly, graduation and employment rate.
“You kind of have to pay attention to the rankings and you have to kind of build your school around the rankings,” Guthrie said. “And that’s deeply problematic.”
Phoebe Haddon is dean of the University of Maryland law school, which ranks 42nd in U.S. News. About a decade ago, she served on a panel with Morse, and she took his rankings to task.
“His response was, ‘I sell magazines. No one has to accept the way I use information to rank law schools. That your colleagues use them is something you ought to talk to them about,’” Haddon said.
Some in academia argue that ranking professional schools is far more credible than ranking colleges: professional schools are, after all, much smaller and more homogeneous than entire colleges.
Haddon disagrees: She thinks the professional school rankings “tend to generalize about things that are not generalizable.”
She wishes the law-school community disregarded the rankings. “But the sad reality is that my alumni do say, ‘Where do we stand in the rankings?’ And my students are concerned about whether we move up in the rankings or we don’t, and so are my faculty.’”
This year, Haddon successfully raised a $30 million gift from a foundation, the largest in her school’s history. She did it for the good of the school - - and also for its ranking.
“I can say that anything I do that has in mind the rankings also serves the other things I think are important,” she said. “That’s my principled way of doing it.”