College Rankings: Not Much Has Changed

Which College Is Best for Me?

Each year, when publications such as U.S. News & World Report release annual college rankings, we see little movement among the top colleges. The suspenseful rankings question isn’t “I wonder which colleges will make the top 10?” but “Will it be Harvard or Yale at the top?” We know that the annual rankings don’t seem to change drastically from one year to the next, but what would happen if we looked at rankings from 100 years ago?

A Duke sociology professor, Kieran Healy, chose to do just that.

In 1911, the newly founded Association of American Universities confronted a pressing question: With the number of colleges in the U.S. growing quickly, how could graduate schools know how good an applicant’s undergraduate education was? To find the answer, the association asked the US Bureau of Education (the predecessor to today’s Department of Education) to step in.

Kendric Babcock, the Bureau’s top higher education official and a former college president, examined thousands of student transcripts and interviewed academic administrators from across the country. Using this data, he rated just over half of the nation’s colleges, grouping them into four tiers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top tier (even in 1911) included colleges such as Harvard and Princeton. The bottom tier, somewhat more surprisingly, included colleges like Virginia Tech and Texas A&M.

A year later, in 1912, newspapers published a copy of the rankings. Colleges in the top tier saw no problems with the rankings, but other colleges were quite insulted to learn that the U.S. government did not believe them to be superior institutions of higher learning. The ensuing uproar made its way to the White House, at which point President William Howard Taft issued an executive order banning the distribution of the college ratings.

The federal government learned its lesson — until recently, no federal agency has attempted to revive the idea of a federal college ratings system. Given the history of federal ratings, it will certainly be interesting to see what happens with the Obama administration’s proposed ratings system.

Of course, as we all know, the backlash against the federal government’s ratings certainly didn’t stop private entities from publishing their own annual college rankings, a practice that has played a large role in shaping the evolution of U.S. higher education.

So how do today’s rankings compare to the original 1911 college ratings system?

Most of the top schools in the US News & World Report rankings were rated Class 1 (top tier) a century ago. Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Dartmouth — schools that consistently grace the top of the college rankings — were all top tier.

A lot of the public schools that were considered top tier a century ago have seen their reputations slip: The University of Nebraska, the University of Kansas, the University of Colorado, the University of Vermont, and the University of Missouri were all top tier at one point, and now they hover in the middle of the pack.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Today’s top schools are mostly private schools with very large, healthy endowments, while public schools rely on strapped state budgets for funding. As a result, the top private schools of 1911 were better able to weather economic downturns, maintaining top quality faculty, campuses, and resources, while the top public schools of 1911 have been more subject to the whims of the economy.

Of further interest are those schools that did not exist in 1911 — which of the newer colleges have established top reputations in a comparatively short period of time?

Neither Duke nor CalTech appeared in the original 1911 rankings; today, both are near the top of the US News rankings. Also on this list are Vanderbilt, Rice, Emory, UCLA, the College of William and Mary, Georgia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon. Such schools — several of which, somewhat surprisingly, are public institutions — have managed to establish themselves in the higher education world without relying on the history that propels the “old guard” elite schools, such as Harvard or Yale.

While the rankings of 1911 may have little bearing on where you choose to go to school, the patterns and anomalies between the rankings of today and the ratings of yesteryear are certainly interesting. To learn more, check out this analysis at Quartz.