Gladwell on US News

Larry Ribstein —  7 February 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.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

7 responses to Gladwell on US News


    You should read this article together with Gladwell’s previous article on the admission process in the Ivy League Colleges. Best regards.


    Consequently we should all buy iPhones. Why? Although they are overpriced, iPhones send the best signal to others that we are “with it” and completely “cool”. Of course, not buying an iPhone may indicate that we are able to think differently and have different but more specific values than the herd and may also get more value for money.

    Employers should all hire from a Yale-ish school. Why? Although they are overpriced, Yale-ish schools are sending the best signal of “success”. Of course, not hiring from a Yale-ish school may indicate that employers are able to think differently and have different but more specific values than the herd and may also get more value for money.


    A few years back, USNews jinked the weightings of its factors in ranking the undergrad programs. The result was that Cal Tech and MIT were one and two. Well, that wouldn’t do. The next year order was restored HYP were 1,2,3 in some order.

    My take was they were selling status confirmation to the commuters in the suburbs of the northeast, who wanted to know the values of the college stickers in the rear windows of the neighbors cars.


    “very expensive, very selective”

    Mostly just “very selective” and very prestigous (the original rankings were on reputatioon alone). The pool of “full price” private higher educational institutions is quite large and includes many not very selective at all institutions (some even in the U.S. News “4th tier”). Moreover, there are a handful of low cost bargains (e.g. Rice University and the service academies and the flagship University of California schools) that find quite high places in the U.S. News and general prestige rankings despite low cost.

    Still, it does bear repeating that the premise upon which U.S. News is based, that attending the most selective school you can be admitted to is the secret to high returns from education, is doubtful.

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