For parents of high school juniors, this is the winter of our discontent.  Meetings with the guidance counselor…workshops for parents on college admissions…stress over spring break trips to visit campii…ACTs and SATs…and the ever-burning question, should we hire a private coach to help our kid’s chances?  (NO is our personal answer to the last one.)

As low-grade college fever burns on, I continue to burn up over the US News & World Report rankings of American institutions of higher education.  Always a cynic, I have never given any credence to these ratings.   How do you not only compare apples to oranges, but also grapes to watermelons, and everything in between, and pretend to be all-knowing and all-powerful?

The whole concept is preposterous – subjective – flawed - and arrogant beyond belief.  A scam, in short.

It’s also a solid marketing gimmick.  Think of the power and the glory and the advertising sales.  That, I can guarantee you, was the real genesis of this rankings idea.

And here’s the proof.  Although the boring, dowdy magazine version of USNWR is now defunct, its special forces division, devoted to those insane rankings that keep colleges and teenagers jumping through hoops, continues its black ops, thriving away.

A recent article in the New York Times revealed how the system has been brilliantly gamed.  For instance,  some law schools send out emails offering temporary work in its offices to its (unemployed) graduates. 

Hiring these people back for menial office labor allowed the schools to give a much rosier and lawyerly answer to a question along the lines of, “How many of your graduates are employed in the legal realm during (this specific time frame)?”  Why, nearly 100%!   (Muttering under breath:  “Until next week, when we let 20 temporary employees, all newly-minted attorneys, go…”) 

Aspiring law students see the rankings and are blown away.  “Wow, nearly 100% of this law school’s graduates are employed two years out of law school, according to the world’s experts on everything in secondary and tertiary education, US News & World Report!   That’s almost a guarantee of success!  This is the law school for me!” 

Villanova University recently revealed that its law school was guilty of bending the truth and fiddling with numbers in order to climb higher in the USNWR rankings.  

Tired of the whole fandango, Swarthmore College opted out of the rankings circus several years ago – despite (or because of) winning perennial top marks in its category.

I would even suggest that the outrageous increase in college tuitions over the last decade can be directly tied to the rankings game.  As every school in the nation tries frantically to improve its ratings, it has thrown money at the challenge.  Think of the marketing efforts that are specifically aimed at rising in in the charts.  Think of the ever-more impressive professors who must be hired.  Think of the funds poured into the facilities, so that dorms now look like hotels, and campuses dazzle with architecture and amenities.

Try not to think about recent reports finding that many college kids spend fewer than five hours on academic work, outside of the classroom, per week. 

To the New York Times expose, the New Yorker has added its own damning dissection of the system.  Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell, for this:

To read the entire piece, you must be a subscriber to the magazine or the online edition.  Read it at your public library or borrow a friend’s copy.  

The piece even gets into one of my pet topics, which has to do with predictors of post-college success.  Often this is personality-driven, having little or nothing to do with the prestige of your felt pennant.  Nebraska Wesleyan and Delaware Wesleyen produced two of the most financially successful people I know, making me wonder “What’s up with the Wesleyans?”  

The New Yorker piece makes the point that Penn State scores extremely well with executive recruiters, despite its ho-hum ratings with US News & World Report.  Turns out that the people who are actually doing the hiring are very impressed with Penn State grads.  Now that’s a data point that is reality-based.

Thank you, Mr. Gladwell, for exposing the man behind the USNWR curtain.  Human, flawed, arrogant, wrong on so many levels, and of course, all powerful.

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