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Has college rank exodus begun?

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Harvard and Yale Law will no longer participate in U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings. The reasons cited are that the methodology used in such rankings is flawed. University of California Berkeley, Stanford, Georgetown and Columbia all followed their lead and ended their involvement. More will certainly follow. 

What are the consequences of the most prestigious law schools in the nation not participating in these rankings? The exodus of Harvard and Yale is clearly forcing every top law school to rethink the benefits and risks of staying in the rankings.

For those law schools who decide to stay, the benefits have diminished, and the risks have increased, since they may be judged not by their rank, but by the company of law schools that they choose to be ranked against. Indeed, the ramifications of this exodus run far wider and deeper, not only for law schools, but now, for all academic rankings. 

University and college rankings are akin to an award for an institution. Being ranked “Number 1” or in the “Top 5” are valuable marketing tools. Prospective students use such rankings when deciding where to apply and which offer to accept. Alumni use the rankings as professional badges of honor. Having a single repository of information available that credibly compares colleges and institutions, assimilating it into a single ranked score, is desirable to many.

Yet, all ranking systems, including academic ranking systems are inherently flawed. For example, ranked scores have margins of error, which means that schools with different score values may be statistically indistinguishable. How the individual components contributing to the scores are weighted may obfuscate the most valuable asset of one school or hide a glaring deficiency of another. This is the challenge when attempting to combine multiple metrics into a single score. For such scores and rankings to be meaningful, the metric components that contribute to the score must be informative and meaningful. Harvard and Yale Law decided they were not. 

Not all schools need a ranked score to indicate their value. Ivy League schools have stellar reputations independent of where they are ranked. Other schools like Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Chicago have similarly pristine reputations.

The value of rankings, much like any award, is determined by the competition. The quality of the competition determines the value of the award. If the most prestigious institutions decide not to participate in national rankings, then the competition is changed. This will devalue the rankings, effectively making them less useful to all participating institutions and prospective students. The rankings implode, forcing the ranking agency to go into damage control to regain the top schools, since without them, their rankings are sullied. Indeed, schools that choose to continue to participate will likely be devalued in the eyes of the community.

U.S. News has provided college rankings for decades. Other organizations provide similar rankings. Specific college rankings like medicine, engineering and business have become ubiquitous. They provide “bragging rights” that allow marketing to showcase why their school is better than the competition. 

Law schools like Harvard and Yale, with their history, reputation and stature never needed an outside agency to evaluate them and rank them amongst their peers. 

Every institution of higher education has their own unique features, assets and less discussed blemishes. When schools ambitious to climb the rankings begin to adjust their missions and operations to satisfy the metrics that go into the rankings, excellence may be sacrificed. 

Unfortunately, far too many schools and colleges attempt to “game” the rankings to move up a few spots, hoping to attract a few more students, and hopeful, a better pool of applicants and admissions. 

This is the very antithesis of excellence, and a sure-fire pathway to mediocrity. If the ranking entity changes the metrics, the “gaming” schools ultimately lose out. 

A school focused on delivering a quality education and experience to its students, producing a product that has value in the market, can showcase itself independent of rankings.

The decision of Harvard and Yale Law should not be the end, but the beginning of ranking exodus.

Will MIT, Stanford, University of California Berkeley and Cal Tech engineering pull out of the engineering school rankings? Will the Ivy League schools collectively pull out of national university rankings?

There are risks with not participating, which means that those institutions who are least impacted with not participating will be the first to drop out. However, once they stop participating, the greater risk is shifted to those schools and college that stay part of the rankings. 

Rankings are useful when they are meaningful. Creating a meaningful single score to evaluate and compare a wide spectrum of colleges and institutions is futile. Harvard and Yale Law have begun a trend and followed by other top law schools. The top medical, engineering and business schools and national universities may begin their own mass exoduses. Where such a movement will end is a story that has just begun to be told.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags College college ranking Education Higher education Sheldon H. Jacobson University

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