Just as the annual season for college ratings and rankings is reaching its high point, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a key White House domestic-policy adviser each took swipes Wednesday at the granddaddy of the genre—the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
The magazine's latest rankings will be out next week, and they have been the subject of debate since they were first published in 1983. Critics say, for starters, that they reward elitism and selectivity, are based on factors that are subject to manipulation by colleges (such as acceptance rates and alumni giving), and provide parents and prospective students with a distorted view of the differences between institutions.
Duncan joined that chorus Wednesday in an appearance on "The Diane Rehm Show" on WAMU, a public radio station in Washington. (The show is carried nationally by some NPR stations.)
Guest host Susan Page, noting that her own family had recently been through the college search process and had consulted the U.S. News rankings, asked Duncan about the value of the magazine's effort.
"I think there are lots of problems with it, frankly," Duncan said. "And I think it has created a lot of perverse incentives that actually increase costs for families like yours."
The context of the question came from last month's announcement by President Barack Obama that his administration planned to develop a system of rating colleges and universities as part of a larger initiative to reduce the costs of higher education.
A couple of weeks ago, the president himself was gently critical of the U.S. News rankings as he discussed the federal rating plan.
"Right now, private rankings like U.S. News and World Report puts out each year their rankings, and it encourages a lot of colleges to focus on ways to—how do we game the numbers—and it actually rewards them, in some cases, for raising costs," Obama said awkwardly on Aug. 22 at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
"I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity," the president continued. "Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed, and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents."
Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News, said in an interview today that he was flattered by the attention from the highest levels of the federal government.
"We have endured plenty of criticism over 30-plus years of doing this," said Kelly. "The federal government is ratifying that rankings matter. The notion of holding institutions to some standards of quality and performance is a perfectly legitimate journalistic exercise."
The popularity of the U.S. News college rankings has prompted other publications to develop similar products. Eight years ago, Washington Monthly, a relatively low-circulation policy magazine in the nation's capital, took on U.S. News with its own rankings with a formula that rewards institutions that enroll more low-income students and keep costs contained.
On Wednesday, Washington Monthly discussed its latest rankings at a panel discussion at the New America Foundation. (Topping its list of national universities is the University of California-San Diego.)
The magazine issue is provocative, with a special look at the nation's best and worst community colleges, an examination of why so many African-American students fail to finish college, and a story about the boom in the U.S. enrollment of "profitable" foreign students, among other topics.
At the panel discussion, James Kvaal, the deputy director of the White House domestic policy council, noted that the Obama administration's ratings plan would not rank college and universities the way U.S. News and Washington Monthly do.
The government's system would be based on factors such as which colleges are offering a good value or offering low-income access, "not like some rating systems that exist today that reward institutions for rejecting students."
Kvaal didn't mention U.S. News by name, but the reference clearly was to that magazine's criteria that value admissions selectivity.
Kvaal also put it this way: "We're not talking about a ranking system where if you gin up a few more applications to reject, you can leapfrog a few institutions."
Responding to the suggestions from Duncan and even the president that the U.S. News rankings encourage higher costs, Kelly said his magazine is specific about how it rewards institutions for their spending.
"We do reward schools for spending money on academics," Kelly said. "We don't reward schools for spending money on salad bars and new dorms."