Can school rankings be saved, and meaningful?

University rankings are likely here to stay. The Financial Times could serve as a model for improving them.

U.S. News & World Report’s announcement this week that it would overhaul its law school rankings criteria following a boycott by several of the nation’s top schools is just the latest example of rankings falling out of favor or under scrutiny.

In a letter addressed to school deans and published on its website, USNWR said the 2023-24 list will give more weight to schools with fellowships allowing students to enter public service jobs. It will also drop consideration of per-student spending and alumni debt, factors seen as rewarding wealthy institutions and dissuading students from pursuing relatively low-paying jobs outside of white shoe firms. Law school deans so far seem unmoved. “Having a window into the operations and decision-making process at U.S. News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings,” said Yale Law’s Heather K. Gerken.

USNWR’s very public scramble to address boycotters’ concerns was a fascinating development in a debate over school rankings that’s been escalating for decades. If schools can force a publication’s hand by staging a collective dropout, there’s hope it could lead to a more holistic rankings system less vulnerable to manipulation.

But are rankings worth saving? Going by the vast majority of them, I’d say no. But there are exceptions pointing the way to a meaningful consideration of strengths beyond test scores, admission rates and salaries. The Financial Times’ business school rankings are the best example.

University rankings were widely scoffed at, but broadly tolerated, by administrators since the 1983 debut of USNWR’s “Best Colleges” issue. The publication was a considerable step down from Times and Newsweek. And “objectively” comparing wildly different schools through rigidly formulated criteria (20% median SAT scores, 10% student-faculty ratio etc.) overlooked the nuances of those schools, not to mention how they suited individual students.

Yet the rankings sold well and became an important marketing tool for colleges as enrollments swelled with the Millennials. Although calls for boycotts date back to the ‘90s, objections were muted until the last decade or so amid exposures of how easy the criteria, in particular SAT scores (themselves increasingly under fire), was to manipulate.

The problems with rankings run deeper than their corruptibility. They’ve played a part in the commodification of universities and essentially function as the Consumer Reports of higher education. That’s an especially troubling development given that it coincided with skyrocketing tuition costs. While America’s richest, tip-top universities are in a position to offer bountiful financial aid packages, an education at other elite colleges remains out of reach for many bright students. The rankings have also created a vicious cycle by helping spur a jump in applications to highly ranked schools that keeps more hopefuls out and drives acceptance rates down, thereby boosting the ranking.

The FT’s business school rankings could inspire meaningful change among competitors with its measurements of inclusivity and coursework geared toward the common good, inexact a science as that may be. The publication took into account the percentage of female faculty and female students in its latest ranking of global full-time MBA programs, many of which still skew male compared to other master’s programs. The FT also weighs programs’ dedication to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) instruction, based on the proportion of course hours dedicated to those topics.

Providing the best kind of editorial context to the rankings also distinguishes the FT’s lists. Global Education Editor Andrew Jack introduced the recent European b-school ranking with a thoughtful, eloquent essay on how schools can propel purposeful leadership as the continent faces a calamitous war on its soil that has exacerbated a preexisting energy crisis.

“The war in Ukraine has…stimulated fresh reflection by business and policymakers on the urgent need for new approaches to economic growth, including the energy transition away from fossil fuels and dependency on Russian gas and oil,” Jack wrote. “That is playing out in the classroom. Even amid resistance or pushback on some US campuses under political pressure around sustainability, there is a long-established European commitment to tackling environmental concerns.”

Such thoughtfulness is hard to find in the US News rankings of grad schools and colleges. Their print editions include featherweight profiles of schools and their leaders, but the online presentations that reach most potential applicants offer little more than interactive charts.

Adopting a more comprehensive criteria like the FT’s wouldn’t mean starting from scratch. Its business school rankings take stock of alumni salaries and employment rates. These are understandably important metrics to potential students incurring debt by paying hefty tuitions and/or taking time off from work. The FT also measures reputation scores, although theirs derive from alumni surveys rather than the polls of deans and experts that USNWR critics say leads to backslapping among leaders of similarly prestigious institutions.

In my ideal world, school rankings wouldn’t exist, or at least wouldn’t carry such weight. And the fiasco surrounding the USNWR’s law school list goes to show they may not be a necessary evil. After all, who is going to take a law school ranking devoid of Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia seriously?

Despite that and other bad news for rankings, I think most of them will stick around awhile. The FT’s efforts to move beyond number crunching and consider the higher purpose of higher education ought to provide a template for their future.