U.S. News declared Harvard the best university in the nation last year, awarding it a perfect score of 100 based on a formula that considered such factors as acceptance rate (7 percent), graduation rate (98 percent) and student-to-faculty ratio (7 to 1).
The ranking did not measure how much Harvard students learn, how much they read and write, or how many go on to graduate school or high-paying jobs. Much of that data, to be fair, is not publicly available. To Morse’s critics, it is a fatal flaw.
“This is the prime fallacy of U.S. News: They think they’re measuring excellence, but they don’t have measures of excellence,” said Paul Glastris, editor of Washington Monthly, one of several publications that offer alternative rankings. “They don’t deliver the thing they say they deliver.”
To its credit, U.S. News created a means for the public to compare institutions on matters of admission and completion — and did it two decades ahead of a surging national movement toward greater accountability in higher education.
U.S. News first ranked colleges in 1983. The editors were trying to break out of third place among newsmagazines (after Time and Newsweek) with a campaign of consumer-friendly “news you can use.” The idea was to list the best colleges in order of quality, the way Consumer Reports ranked automobiles and dishwashers.
Morse is neither a journalist nor a stereotypical East Coast snob. He has an economics degree from the University of Cincinnati, which his publication ranked 156th among national universities last year, with an overall score of 29. He has an MBA from Michigan State, which was ranked 79th.
He joined U.S. News in 1976 as part of its economics unit, a team of non-journalists who wrote studies to which journalists would append quotes. He moved to the rankings team in 1987 and has overseen the annual project since 1989.
The first rankings judged colleges on a single factor, academic reputation, as measured by presidents in a survey. Morse designed a more sophisticated survey that is still in use, with some tweaks, today.
Graduation and freshmen retention rates count for the largest share of the 100-point ranking, 27.5 percent, with extra points for schools whose graduation rates exceed statistical expectations based on socioeconomic mix and other factors. Academic reputation counts for 22.5 percent, based on surveys completed by presidents, provosts, admission deans and high school guidance counselors. Faculty resources (including student-faculty ratio) count for 20 percent. Selectivity (including admission rate) counts for 15 percent, financial resources for 10 percent, and alumni giving for 5 percent.
The rankings have always mirrored the established order: Harvard, Princeton and Yale top the list of national universities; Amherst and Williams generally head the list of liberal arts schools.
Some former U.S. News employees say Morse and others have engineered the rankings to guarantee that the same schools come out on top, allegations laid out in a 2000 Washington Monthly article. Morse denies ever putting his thumb on the scales.
College presidents complain that schools near the top of the list never change. That’s not entirely true.
Since 1991, Columbia has risen from 10th to fourth among national universities; the University of Pennsylvania, another private institution, climbed from 13th to fifth; and Northwestern from 23rd to 12th. The University of California at Berkeley has dropped from 13th to 22nd and the University of Virginia from 18th to 25th.
Critics say the ranking undervalues public universities because it measures wealth and they are not wealthy. Since 1991, each of the five public institutions ranked highest on the U.S. News list has slipped at least seven places.
“Chancellors and presidents only quote rankings when their schools are doing well, and so I never quote U.S. News at all, ever,” said Robert J. Birgeneau, Berkeley’s chancellor.
Other publishing firms have followed U.S. News into the rankings business, including big names such as Kiplinger and Forbes. None has seriously challenged U.S. News, which has the advantage of being first and, critics say, of affirming the status quo.
Asked whether he remembers when U.S. News had its first competitors, Morse replied, “I’m not sure that we have competitors now.”