Thursday, April 20, 2006

The college rankings game

I've always been critical of US News and World Report's annual college and graduate school rankings; in fact, I denounced them in a Daily Cougar column almost a decade ago. And I'm not the only one who feels like these rankings are controversial, flawed, biased and, ultimately, useless.

These rankings are generated not by any peer-reviewed academic or education journal but rather by a mass-circulation newsweekly (whose circulation lags well behind that of Time or Newsweek). Aside from the fact that the entire idea of ranking elite (and expensive) private universities like Harvard or Yale with urban public schools like the University of Houston is absurd, because the two schools serve completely different types of students, they are based on an arbitrary (and constantly-changing) methodology that relies heavily on a completely subjective reputation score.

Speaking of the University of Houston, US News's most recent law school rankings have generated controversy there; Law School dean Nancy Rapoport has tendered her resignation, apparently at least in part to student and faculty concern over the school's ongoing decline in the US News rankings. But, as Chronicle columnist Rick Casey explains, not everybody agrees with those rankings. University of Texas law professor Brian Leiter, who does his own law school rankings, believes the annual US News rankings are a are a "fraud upon the public." Leiter says that the University of Houston's law program is the second best in the state (behind his own school, of course!), not the fourth-best program in the state as the US News rankings claim.

The problem, Casey notes, is that 15 percent of the US News rankings are based on reputation scores given by hundreds of lawyers and judges nationwide. The University of Houston does not do well in these polls, which Leiter thinks are biased towards the east and west coasts. "I think many lawyers may simply not know the school, but have an image of Houston that does not project an excellent law school," Casey suggests.

So there you have it: a mass-market newsweekly, generating bogus college rankings, based largely on a subjective reputation score from a bunch of unaccountable non-academics. Surely, there are better and more honest ways to sell magazines, right?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The rankings may be biased toward the coasts and the 'name schools', but no law school can hope for a decent ranking in a system based so much on reputation scores when that school can't teach fundamental skills such as legal research and writing adequately(judging by the abilities of their current and former students). If the faculty could get off their backbiting butts and place more emphasis on research and writing (not to mention the actual use of the library), maybe Houston could rise in the rankings. Flawed as they may be, in the hothouse world of law and legal education, they matter.