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Malcolm Gladwell Joins the “Anti-US News and World Report Ratings” Club

July 2, 2021

I haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts on his opposition to the US News and World Report’s rating system, but I know I’m going to love it because I, too, despise the rankings. (See here, here, and here for examples and for my arguments against this system.) Here’s Malcolm Gladwell’s take: 

How did you get interested in the U.S. News college rankings?

Well, I’ve always been interested in them because I’m Canadian, and I’ve always been overwhelmed with how nuts the American system of higher education is. And it strikes me that the U.S. News rankings are so emblematic of that nuttiness, a marketing ploy 30 years ago that has somehow been lodged in everyone’s brain ever since. And when you interrogate the criteria they use to decide whether one school’s good and one school is not good, it makes no sense. I simply can’t get over the fact that people take this seriously.

People who listen to the show will know that American higher education has long been a favorite target of yours. What about it bedevils you?

There’s one thing America does well, which is it has created some really great high-end research universities. I’d keep that, but everything else is crazy. You take any kid who’s serious about college in their junior and senior year of high school and just completely stress them out in what should be a very happy time in their life. Then, they go to schools, and they are invariably impoverished and come out loaded down with debt. And then, there’s a handful of schools everyone wants to go to, which deliberately exclude as many people as they can, and they’re the ones that get all the money. There’s no part of that that makes any sense.

And you have, complicit in all of this, a ranking system which chooses to reward schools for doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. When you start peeling back layers, you discover that baked into a lot of these assessments of higher education is a series of assumptions that are appalling. This thing that they’re relying on, it’s very close to being racist. I don’t want to say it’s active, open racism, but it doesn’t look good.

No… it DOESN’T look good and it ISN’T good in any way… and yet it persists because it is a cheap and easy way to convert a complicated system (i.e. colleges and universities) into a neat and tidy metric that lends itself to horse-race rankings. 

I enjoy all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, his New Yorker essays, and his podcast. I look forward to listening! 

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