It’s as reliable an indicator of the start of the academic year as sales at Office Depot: U.S. News and World Report has released its rankings of best undergraduate colleges. (If it matters, Harvard topped the list and Boston University came in 56th. ) Most experts put little faith in the magazine’s methodology. Even if they could rank schools, a single score says nothing about whether an individual student will succeed there.
Still, I admit I check the list each year. Apparently a lot of other readers do, too. U.S. News now covers very little news and has come to be known for its ever-expanding franchise of rankings. They now rank U.S. hospitals by specialty. This seems even more absurd than colleges since a woman in need of a hysterectomy is unlikely to fly to Baltimore just to be seen by the nation’s top gynecology department.
If any good comes of these publicity stunts, it is to make universities and academic health centers accountable for outcomes. We may disagree on the criteria they use to measure excellence, but the rankings encourage institutions to consider what are the right criteria. Assessment helps us make sure we’re meeting the appropriate goals.