The Ominous Cracks in the US News College Ranking System

Malcolm Gladwell exposes the circular logic and the culture of privilege embedded in the ranking giant’s algorithm.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | July 9, 2021

For more than three decades, US News has loomed over the landscape of higher education like the Colossus of Rhodes. Year after year, its “Best Colleges” guide has become the go-to reference for millions of college-bound families, beguiled by its claim that a mysterious algorithm can pin down the elusive concept of excellence. Colleges have twisted themselves into knots to boost their rankings, from building fancy dorms to submitting fake numbers.

But the colossus is cracking.

Last year, Nature published a highly critical report on the college rankings industry, giving US News a particularly low grade. And now author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell has focused on the broody giant in his podcast, Lord of the Rankings, leaning heavily on the work of a team of Reed College statisticians who figured out how to reverse-engineer US News’s proprietary system. His conclusion? The algorithm is fundamentally a reflection of wealth and privilege, favoring rich over poor, white over Black, and fancy dorms over inspiring professors. 

With the help of Reed statistics professor Kelly McConville and her students Huaying Qiu ’20 and Lauren Rabe ’21, Gladwell zeroes in on a key element of the US News algorithm, the notorious peer assessment score. To calculate this score, the guide asks top college officials—presidents, provosts, and deans of admission—to rate other institutions. But as Gladwell points out, these officials often know very little about the schools they’re assessing. In a riveting exchange with an anonymous dean of admission, Gladwell examines the kind of impressionistic factors—”my cousin went there and had a good time”—that color people’s judgment. Gladwell even interviews the president of Rowan University, who sends a bottle of hot sauce to other presidents every year in an effort to boost Rowan’s score (it works!)

The bottom line, as Gladwell discovers, is that the peer assessment score is essentially a function of reputation—reputation that over the last 30 years has been constructed, maintained, and reinforced by US News.

As many readers know, Reed has long stood as a holdout against the system. Appalled by a blistering article on US News in the Wall Street Journal, then-President Steve Koblik pulled Reed out of the system in 1996. US News retaliated by relegating the college to the bottom of the barrel, and has imposed a steep penalty on Reed ever since. In 2019, Reed statistics students hacked the system and estimated that the college should have been ranked at #38; its actual rank was #90. (Although US News claimed the students’ analysis was “inaccurate,” it swiftly promoted Reed to #63).

Gladwell also takes a close look at Dillard University, a private, historically Black university in New Orleans that US News assigns a very low rank. Gladwell shows, however, that Dillard’s score depends less on its classes and more on the types of students it serves: mostly Black, first-generation students from working families who sometimes struggle to  graduate on time—not because they are bad students, but because of structural inequities in family income. These families are also less likely to make the kinds of gifts that build a big endowment, which also factors heavily into the algorithm. 

Aided and abetted by Prof. McConville and the Reed stats squad, Gladwell explores what it would take for Dillard to vault to the top of the US News rankings. Without giving too much away, let’s say the results are a shock—but not a surprise. Listen for yourself and enjoy Gladwell at his best—insightful, funny, and profound. 

Choosing a college is a big decision. Families deserve accurate, reliable information about class sizes, majors, graduation rates, financial aid, and so on; college guides such as US News play an important role in that. But as Gladwell points out, the system has come to perpetuate the very forces it was originally designed to subvert: wealth, prestige, and privilege.

Reed is extremely fortunate. Our tradition of small classes, inspiring professors, rigorous intellectual exploration, and interdisciplinary creativity sets us apart from the mainstream of American higher education. We have been able to defy the rankings system and thrive. It is my hope that every college-bound senior can look past the mirage of the rankings and find a destination where they, too, will thrive.

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