The Ceaseless Quest For Rankings

If you want some tangible evidence of how rankings have affected the activities of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education, you need look no farther than Philadelphia, Pennsylvania– where a federal court jury recently convicted Moshe Porat, the long-time dean of the Temple University Richard J. Fox School of Business and Management, of mail and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to boost that school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office for Eastern Pennsylvania, Porat, who served as the dean of the business management school from 1996 to 2018, was convicted after the jury found that he had “conspired and schemed to deceive the school’s applicants, students, and donors into believing that the school offered top-ranked business degree programs, so that they would pay tuition and make donations to Temple.” The statement explains that Porat and two other conspirators “agreed to provide false information to U.S. News about the number of Fox’s [on-line MBA (“OMBA”) and part-time MBA (“PMBA”)] students who had taken the Graduate Management Admission Test (“GMAT”); the average work experience of Fox’s PMBA students; and the percentage of Fox students who were enrolled part-time, all because it was believed that better numbers for these metrics would result in better rankings for the programs.”

The scheme to goose the school’s rankings evidently worked, too. The U.S. Attorney statement explains: “Relying on the false information it had received from Fox, U.S. News ranked Fox’s OMBA program Number One in the country four years in a row (2015 – 2018). U.S. News also moved Fox’s PMBA program up its rankings from No. 53 in 2014 to No. 20 in 2015, to No. 16 in 2016, and to No. 7 in 2017.” Porat then touted the rankings in “marketing materials directed at potential Fox students and donors,” and “[e]nrollment in Fox’s OMBA and PMBA programs grew dramatically in a few short years, which led to millions of dollars a year in increased tuition revenues.”

The “rankings” established by publications like U.S. News and World Report have had a profound–and in my view, negative–impact on the world of higher education. Parents and students use them to help in making application decisions, and schools reorient their admissions standards and processes and make other important decisions in an endless quest to better their rankings. The notion that you can boil down the whole college experience, or a law school education, to a ranking based on metrics is absurd on its face, but the rankings give schools something to boast about, or goals to achieve. Never mind the distorting and pernicious effect the zeal for higher rankings might have on a school’s educational mission–or the fact that the rankings have become such a dominant force that they caused one school administrator to apparently engaged in fraudulent conduct.

We’re past the point where our kids are making school decisions, but this incident really makes you wonder how meaningful those rankings really are.