This year, almost 900 first-year students at Baylor University in Texas retook their SATs. No, this was not a grading mistake. It was because Baylor wanted to boost its ranking in U.S. News and World Report’s list of “Best Colleges.” Baylor incentivized freshmen with $300 at the campus bookstore to retake their SATs and offered $1,000 a year in scholarship aid to those who raised their scores by at least 50 points. Though seemingly cavalier and unethical, programs like this are products of the bizarre and destruction nature of the rank system employed and popularized by U.S. News and World Report.
Infamous in the hallways of high school across America, U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings are released with much—undeserved—fanfare. As the U.S. News Web site succinctly states, their purpose is “to help you make one of the most important decisions of your life.” Designed like a Consumer Reports article, the rankings do anything but help.
The rankings twist highly subjective and qualitative data into quantitative terms, with enormously flawed results. For example, surveys sent to college officials asking for ratings of other college and university reputations—disingenuously called “peer assessment” by U.S. News—counts for 25 percent of the overall ranking. Not only do many of these officials know little about their peer institutions, but they also have an adverse incentive to downgrade their competitors.
Insomuch as U.S. News is culpable for this phenomenon, so are students and university officials. It is the student, as a consumer of this commodification and faulty data, who perpetuates the rankings by using them. U.S. News is, after all, a publication. If there were no readership, it would not be able to continue its dastardly deeds. As long as people continue to pay attention to the rankings, thus lending them a popular credibility, U.S. News will continue abusing them.
There is plenty of blame to go around on this issue. Bribing students is not the business of universities. SAT exams are admissions test, intended to help admissions officers at colleges and universities select an incoming class. Not only is Baylor subverting the intent of the SATs, but it is also setting a terrible example for its students. As an institution of higher education, Baylor should be committed to academic integrity. There is nothing admirable about this extraordinary case of grade grubbing.
In any problem, there is often an environmental and a direct cause. The misperceptions and destructively competitive behavior that U.S. News has fostered with its flawed rankings compose the environmental cause here. But the direct cause is just as horrendous: Uninformed students and employees, as well as unethical Baylor administrators should blame for this unfortunate series of events. The situation is disappointing, from any perspective.