The U.S. News & World Report rankings, long a major force in higher education, face a growing revolt by law and medical schools that are refusing to cooperate with a system they say is based too much on wealth and prestige. Critics of the rankings say the uprising soon could spread to undergraduate institutions.
Within the past few days, medical schools at the University of Pennsylvania and at Columbia and Stanford universities have declared that they would no longer provide U.S. News with data it uses to rank them. Their actions came after Harvard University's top-ranked medical school on Jan. 17 announced a similar withdrawal from participation. As a result, four of the top 10 on the U.S. News list of best medical schools for research are on record in opposing the ranking process.
The rankings "perpetuate a vision for medical education and the future physician and scientist workforce that we do not share," J. Larry Jameson, the dean of U-Penn.'s medical school, said in a statement Tuesday. He said the metrics U.S. News uses encourage schools to enroll students with the highest grades and test scores. "Yet, we strive to identify and attract students with a wide array of characteristics that predict promise," Jameson said. "The careers of transformative physicians, scientists, and leaders reveal the importance of other personal qualities, including creativity, passion, resilience, and empathy."
Hours after that statement, the 11th-ranked Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai announced that it would no longer participate, either.
"I've been dean for 16 years, and I didn't like living with the rankings," said Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine. The school almost made this decision more than five years ago, he said, but some people were concerned that it might affect their ability to recruit top students.
A similar dynamic unfolded in legal education after Yale University's top-ranked law school renounced the U.S. News rankings in November. Many prominent schools followed Yale Law School's lead.
U.S. News rankings in a plethora of education markets, such as "best liberal arts colleges" and "best online programs," aim to help students and others navigate complex and often confusing choices about where to apply, where to enroll, and what kinds of degrees make sense for their career ambitions and their pocketbooks. The assumption is that something of the essence of institutions, public or private, small or large, religious or not, can be distilled by crunching data and assembling lists with ordinal numbers.
But Charney said the metrics were pushing schools to make decisions contrary to their own priorities. "We're going to feel a lot more freedom in our admissions policies and how we evaluate students," he said. "We're not going to worry about those metrics. It feels great."
Undergraduate education leaders who have long chafed at the concept of ranking are deliberating whether to break with U.S. News, too.
"Now I think is the time to question whether we continue," said L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College. U.S. News ranks it 27th among national liberal arts colleges. Richardson said the U.S. News criteria are "narrow" and often do not reflect the mission and values of her college and others. She said many in higher education share her skepticism but hesitate to go public. "They know the emperor has no clothes, and yet everyone's playing the game, because they feel like they have to," Richardson said.
Richardson was previously law dean at the University of California at Irvine, whose law school recently took a stance against the U.S. News rankings. She has cheered the burgeoning revolt. "People are finally ready, given everything that's going on in the world right now, to say, 'We've had enough,'" she said. "I'm so happy."
In response to complaints, U.S. News has tweaked its law school ranking formula, giving more weight to certain steps schools take to promote public-service careers and less weight to how judges, academics and lawyers perceive the reputations of the schools.
But the publication defends its rankings as a service for consumers who are trying to make sense of a confusing national marketplace. "Our mission is to help prospective students make the best decisions for their educational future," U.S. News said last week in a statement responding to criticism from Harvard Medical School. "Where students attend school and how they use their education are among the most critical decisions of their life, and with admissions more competitive and less transparent, and tuition increasingly expensive, we believe students deserve access to all the data and information necessary to make the right decision.
"We know that comparing diverse academic institutions across a common data set is challenging, and that is why we have consistently stated that the rankings should be one component in a prospective student's decision-making process. The fact is, millions of prospective students annually visit U.S. News medical school rankings because we provide students with valuable data and solutions to help with that process."
A spokeswoman for U.S. News said Tuesday that the publication had nothing to add to the statement.
College and university leaders have criticized the rankings for years. One common complaint: Formulas that put heavy weight on high test scores drive some schools to offer scholarships to students who test well, rather than to those with financial need. But the annual lists of "best" schools are so influential that most have continued to submit information that U.S. News requests to calculate the rankings.
This year is different.
Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken, whose school has held the top spot for decades, touched off the revolt when she announced that the school would no longer take part. "We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession," Gerken wrote.
One by one, many law schools joined hers.
Within medical education, it is not yet clear how far the rebellion will spread.
New York University's second-ranked medical school, asked about the actions of its counterparts at Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and U-Penn., issued a statement that was neither for nor against U.S. News. "These academic medical centers made a decision that is best for their institutions," the statement said. "We will do what is in the best interest of NYU Langone Grossman School of Medicine, our students, and our patients."
"No ranking system is perfect," said Anantha Shekhar, the dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which is ranked 14th on U.S. News's list. He has concerns, he said, but he also acknowledged that rankings can spur healthy competition.
"We'll continue to submit the data for now," he said, "but we'll have to evaluate it over time."
Many other medical schools in the top 25 have declined to take a stand since the Harvard announcement.
Two former leaders at the University of Chicago's medical school wrote an opinion piece in STAT in November urging deans to stop participating, arguing that the rankings do a "grave disservice" to applicants and reinforce "biased, even racist practices that should be antithetical to the values and professional standards of academic medicine."
The sole beneficiary, they wrote, is U.S. News.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, tied for 20th on the list of best medical schools for research, had not taken a position on the rankings debate.
Holly J. Humphrey and Dana Levinson of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on improving medical education, cited multiple concerns with the ranking methodology, including "an elitist emphasis on the reputation and wealth of schools." Humphrey, who was dean of medical education at Chicago for 15 years, said increasing competition in health care over the years intensified the pressure on schools to try to ensure that they placed high on the list.
These are not new concerns. “This topic comes up at nearly every meeting of medical educators and deans of medical schools that I have attended over the course of my entire career,” spanning decades, Humphrey said.