It is Not Only Republican Politicians Who Are Harming Education, Part 2: University Rankings Edition

[Note to readers: Three days ago, I published a column under the headline, "Two Outside Influences (Beyond the Obvious One) That Are Harming Higher Education."  Because that column was quite long, and because the headline was more than a bit opaque, I am breaking the column into two parts and publishing them under new titles.  I have thus gone back and edited Tuesday's column to include only the material relating to college sports, while today's column discussing the madness of university rankings appears below (with a short new intro).  For those of you who said of Tuesday's column, "Too long, didn't read," this is a second bite at the apple.]


This column continues my two-part discussion of the factors other than Republican anti-intellectualism that are harming higher education in the US.  Beyond the toxic effect that the full professionalization of college sports is having on the university landscape, which I discussed in Part 1 on Tuesday, there is also the decades-long effort to make money by purporting to measure the relative "quality" of our institutions of higher learning.  That, too, has had a corrupting and distorting effect on the US's most valuable asset.

When it comes to ranking universities supposedly on academic quality grounds, the process has been less dramatic than the current craziness in college sports, but the net result has similarly been to change the entities themselves, almost entirely in ways that are unfortunate to their long-term health and are bad for nearly everyone involved.  Perhaps more interestingly, the house of cards is falling apart in eerily similar ways.

Rankings were becoming a serious source of concern just as I was moving from economics into law twenty-five years ago.  Nearly every department, school, and administration condemned the escalating rankings arms race, even as everyone was increasingly aware that they could never consider unilaterally disarming.  Everything became a matter of diverting resources in an effort to rise in the rankings, which meant both that educational priorities were being set by unqualified profit-driven former journalists at USNews and that educational institutions needed to raise more money to "compete."

When I decided to upend my life and go to law school, I was living in Wisconsin and teaching in the economics department of the state university's campus in Milwaukee.  With the main campus less than a two-hour drive away in Madison, I thought: "Hey, the University of Wisconsin is a top-flight research university.  I'll bet their law school is top 10 or at least to 20."  Not so much.  When I asked a law professor friend what it would take for the UW law school to become elite again, I assumed that he was going to say something substantive about curriculum, faculty, and similar educational concerns.  Instead, he answered: "Oh, probably about $300 million."

That new world was bad, but it was sustainable.  Schools that could find the money might try to make serious moves upward, and others that were badly mismanaged could plummet.  Mostly, however, everyone was running to stand still.  When I was a visiting scholar at Cornell Law in 2009-10, for example, there was an open meeting for students and faculty in which a representative of the law school administration told the students in attendance something like this:

Cornell is ranked #13, and we're fine with that.  If you're not, then you should try to transfer to a higher-ranked law school, because we're not willing to do what would be necessary to climb a few more rungs up the ladder.  However, I assure you that we will do everything we can to make sure that we never drop in the rankings.  We like where we are, and we're going to stay here.

And for many years, that willingness to settle for stasis worked well.  There would be occasional scandals (especially in other fields, such as Columbia College's exposure for faking data to artificially inflate its rankings), and there would be some movement outside of what has become known as the T14 (the top fourteen law schools that all think of themselves as top ten schools), but the movement within T14 was minimal -- so much so that I can easily not only name the perpetual top fourteen but even come very close to reciting their semi-permanent rankings in order.

One of the law schools that made major moves outside of T14 was the University of Florida.  When I was lured away from GW in 2019, UF had moved up from #48 to #31, and it would top out at #21 shortly after I arrived.  The highest-prestige program in the law school, the graduate tax program, went from #3 to #2 nationwide.  (Causation and correlation are not the same thing, but ...)  When the rankings subsequently slipped just a bit, it was reasonable to assume that market fundamentals had reared their ugly heads -- UF could move past the Notre Dames, William & Marys, and Indianas of the world, but could it ever pass Texas or Northwestern? -- and that there was something like a regression toward the mean at work.  In the most recent rankings, the first since I announced my departure, UF has dropped to #28 and the tax program has now fallen into a tie for #3.  (Again, correlation.)

The story at UF was a combination of a dynamic dean (Laura Rosenbury, now the President of Barnard College) and a state Republican Party that had not yet been overtaken by the anti-woke (or, as I prefer to call it, pro-coma) panic.  UF could soar in the ranking (up to a ceiling) because the rankings were perverse but predictable, and the dean made good choices that allowed the school to improve its actual quality even while playing the rankings game better than most.  Even so, the political winds in Florida (as well as President Rosenbury's departure) do not bode well for UF's future rankings.  But the bigger story is the emergence of instability.

Why does this matter?  Many students and their families have relied almost exclusively on the USNews rankings to choose where to go to school.  One young friend of mine in the early 2000's had no particular interest in going to an all-women's college, but her parents told her that she had no choice but to go to the highest-ranked college that would admit her; so off to Wellesley she went.  I even knew an entry-level law professor who chose between two offers by going to the #22 rather than the #28 law school, even though she acknowledged that everything about the #28 school felt better to her (other than the ranking).

As it happens, in the years since my friend made that foolish decision, the two school's rankings have reversed.  Again, however, that has generally not been the norm.  Students and others could be reasonably confident that, say, going to Harvard meant going to at worst a top-three law school and that going to Berkeley guaranteed being in the top 10.

In the last few years, however, a variety of factors have led USNews to change and re-change its methodology, with the result being that even the T14 rankings are all over the place.  This year, Cornell lost its coveted #13 spot (by one slot, and only due to a fluke, but still), and Harvard is now tied for fourth with ... Duke, which has spent the last forever in the #10-12 range.  Berkeley is the new #12.  In a private email, a colleague wrote:

I'm hoping that with what now looks like perennial changes, these rankings become increasingly irrelevant. No prudent prospective student decides to go to, say, the number 7 law school rather than the number 11 law school if it's random whether those schools will have flip-flopped in a couple of years when they're looking for a job.

The net result of all this, then, could be that rankings will lose their salience.  I suspect, however, that it is more likely that we will see increasingly desperate and expensive attempts by schools to insure against unpleasant rankings outcomes, while students will ever more frantically shop themselves to schools in their own version of the transfer portal.  NIL's might never arrive in law (although I would never count out any insane outcome), but the arms race is just as intense, and there are scholarships and stipends to be had.

To be sure, there are clear downsides to a world in which there is little change in the haves and have-nots.  Some churn is good.  Unfortunately, in both college sports lol and school rankings, what has replaced rigidity is nothing short of chaos.  People are chasing dollars and rankings in increasingly wasteful ways, and there is no obvious mechanism to bring even a bit of sanity to these worlds.

As I noted at the beginning of Tuesday's column, however, there are much larger forces at work that will destroy universities very directly.  Sports and rankings are harmful in increasingly obvious ways, but they are nothing compared to what the Republicans would like to do to our entire system of higher education.  Stay tuned.