U.S. News & World Report's College Rankings List Is Baloney. Here's the List You Should Actually Use

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This post originally ran on Robert Reich’s website.

After heavy lobbying from
some of the nation’s most elite institutions of higher education, the President
has just abandoned his effort to rank the nation’s 7,000 colleges and universities.

So, with college
application season almost upon us, where should aspiring college students and their
parents look for advice?

In my view, not U.S. News and World Report’s annual
college guide (out last week).  

It’s analogous to a restaurant
guide that gives top ratings to the most expensive establishments that are backed
and frequented by the wealthiest gourmands – and much lower rankings to
restaurants with the best food at lower prices that attract the widest range of

Without fail, U. S. News puts at the top of its list
America’s most exclusive and expensive private universities that admit low
numbers and small percentages of students from poor families.

These elite institutions also
train a disproportionately large share of the nation’s investment bankers,
corporate chieftains, corporate lawyers, and management consultants. 

Around 70
of Harvard’s senior class routinely submits resumes to Wall Street and
corporate consulting firms, for example. Close to 36 percent of
Princeton’s 2010 graduating class went into finance, down from 46 percent
before the financial crisis. 

And so it goes, through the Ivy League and other elite private institutions. 

Meanwhile, U.S. News relegates to lower rankings
public universities that admit most of the young Americans from poor families who
attend college, and which graduate far larger percentages of teachers, social
workers, legal aide attorneys, community organizers, and public servants than do the private elite colleges.

US New claims
its rankings are neutral. Baloney.

They’re based on such “neutral”
criteria as how selective a college is in its admissions, how much its alumni
donate, how much money and other resources its faculty receive, and how much it spends per student.

Colleges especially favored
by America’s wealthy are bound to excel on these criteria. The elite pour money
into them because these institutions have educated them and, they hope, will educate
their offspring.  

A family name engraved in marble
on such a campus confers unparalleled prestige.

And because these
institutions have educated such a high proportion of America’s wealthy elite,
that elite looks with particular favor on graduates of these institutions in
making hiring decisions.

Which helps explain their high and
increasing selectivity. As the income and wealth of America’s elite has soared over
recent decades, the financial benefits of being anointed as a graduate of such an institutions have
soared in tandem.  

The U.S. News rankings perpetuate the myth
that these elite institutions offer the best education – as if the economic
diversity of a student body and the values and career choices of its undergraduates
were irrelevant to receiving a high-quality education.  

And as if educational
excellence could be measured by the size of the wallets supporting it. 

Public universities are at an inherent disadvantage on these criteria because they rely on state funding instead of wealthy alumni. They also admit large numbers of students, which often means a lower expenditure per student.

And because public
universities have a special responsibility to be accessible to students from
every economic class, they take more chances on broader range of promising
students, including many who are the first in their families to attend college.

Public universities are the
major vehicles of upward mobility in America. They educate 73 percent of all
college students. The Ivy League educates just 0.4 percent.

And the best public
universities provide a higher-quality education, in my view, than many of the private

Full disclosure: I was
educated in private elite universities – Dartmouth and Yale. And I taught for many years at

These venerable institutions rate at or near the top of the U.S. News rankings.

For the past decade, though,
I’ve been teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.

One thing I’ve discovered: My
Berkeley students are every bit as bright as the students I met or taught in
the Ivies.

Another: More Pell-grant
eligible students (a proxy for students from low-income families) attend Berkeley than attend the entire Ivy League combined.

And my Berkeley students are
more involved in, and more of them are aiming for careers in, public service
than any group of students I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. (Each
year, around 10,000 Berkeley undergraduates engage in off-campus public service
projects and programs.)

In an era when income and
wealth are more concentrated at the top than in living memory – much of it in
the hands of Wall Street bankers, corporate executives, and their retainers – U.S. News has become a major enabler of
American inequality.  

We need another guide for
ranking colleges – one that doesn’t look at the fatness of alumni wallets or
the amount spent on each student, but does take account of economic diversity
and dedication to public service.

Fortunately, there is one.
It’s a relatively new one, provided by the Washington Monthly.

My advice: Use it.

Robert Reich
Robert B. Reich is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most…
Robert Reich

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