Criticism of College Rankings from Stanford's President Emeritus (1996) - still relevant today

As the president of a university that is among the top-ranked universities, I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings - particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision - is utterly misleading. I wish I could forego this letter since, after all, the rankings are only another newspaper story. Alas, alumni, foreign newspapers, and many others do not bring a sense of perspective to the matter.

      I am extremely skeptical that the quality of a university - any more than the quality of a magazine - can be measured statistically. However, even if it can, the producers of the U.S. News rankings remain far from discovering the method. Let me offer as prima facie evidence two great public universities: the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of California-Berkeley. These clearly are among the very best universities in America - one could make a strong argument for either in the top half-dozen. Yet, in the last three years, the U.S. News formula has assigned them ranks that lead many readers to infer that they are second rate: Michigan 21-24-24, and Berkeley 23-26-27.

      Such movement itself - while perhaps good for generating attention and sales - corrodes the credibility of these rankings and your magazine itself. Universities change very slowly - in many ways more slowly than even I would like. Yet, the people behind the U.S. News rankings lead readers to believe either that university quality pops up and down like politicians in polls, or that last year's rankings were wrong but this year's are right (until, of course, next year's prove them wrong).

I quoted an excerpt. Please read the full letter here.

This letter is from Gerhard Casper, Stanford's President Emeritus. In it he urges U.S. News and World Report to move away from its college ranking system. He gives an elegant critique of their methods along with a plea to help families who are looking to choose the right college for their child.

He uses the University of Michigan as a case to show how the the ratings are faulty, and as an alumnus, I appreciated that.

It is somewhat sad that the letter is from 1996 and these pathetic ratings still last. Two years ago I even watched a newspaper in New York City rank the high schools with letter grades based on things like Ivy League matriculation, endowment dollars, and other odd pieces.

I am hopeful that schools are helping their families with much clearer methods of picking schools for their children. Parents, stand tall, and do what is right for your child. Do not become infatuated with the salacious bits of "journalism" around America's colleges.

via @krupali

arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.