Gladwell on US News

Cite this Article
Larry Ribstein, Gladwell on US News, Truth on the Market (February 07, 2011),

Malcolm Gladwell tackles US News college and law school rankings in the 2/14 New Yorker (subscription required).  The result is the usual Gladwellian light-headedness, a lot of cleverness but best taken like most situation comedies, without a lot of reflection.

Gladwell begins by making the simple and unarguable point that you can’t capture the quality of schools with a single score that depends on the factors you choose to emphasize.  As Gladwell notes, Jeff Stake long ago made this point about USN rankings.

But then Gladwell veers from the obvious to the wrongheaded by suggesting that USN rankings are ideologically driven — that is, “designed to reward Yale-ness.”

So here’s the syllogism:  the rankings do in fact reward Yale-ness (obviously, whatever that means), a ranking like this depends on which factors you emphasize, and therefore US News designed the rankings in order to reward Yale-ness. 

Let’s think about this for a minute:  why would USN want to reward Yale-ness?  Because it’s an elitist publication?  Because its writers graduated from Yale?

More likely USN just wants to sell a product.  This explains why it uses a single ranking despite the obvious criticism that it depends what you’re looking for.  Who would buy a ranking that says “you decide”?  The news value lies in the definitive score. 

If the ranking is meaningless, why not just be random and save a lot of time and money?  Obviously a random score wouldn’t be newsworthy either.  But then why should we care about even a non-random ranking if it depends on whatever USN chooses to emphasize?

My guess is that we keep buying those USN scores because USN actually has gotten it right.  The rankings aren’t about educational quality or value, but about the signal you send by going to a particular school. Yale should be number 1 not because you get the best education there, but because it sends the best signal:  very expensive, very selective.  USN emphasizes inputs rather than outputs not because inputs matter to your education but because the cost and selectivity of going to Yale sends the best signal to future mates, employers, etc.

Gladwell ends his story by saying: “Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.” But in a capitalist economy, where USN is in it for the money, what really matters is who is doing the buying not who is doing the selling. 

We have met the superficial status-monger and he is us.