Last week, the Wall Street Journal and Time Higher Education released their second annual college rankings. While I appreciate some differences in their methodology from what we see each year from the US News & World Report, I didn’t have to look much further than their page introducing the Top 10 to be reminded of the many reasons I feel frustrated by college rankings in general. The way university rankings are covered as a horse race—MIT moves up to second, Stanford falls to sixth—belies the reality that colleges and universities move much more like oil tankers than thoroughbreds; they stay on a course without much change except over very long periods of time. Annual rankings, which purport to show changes in institutional quality year over year, can’t really say a whole lot when the methodology draws heavily on factors that are largely fixed, except for microscopic changes in hiring or from student survey responses. This is why schools in the Top 10 are nearly always in the Top 10, and why you’ll never see a school jump 20 slots in a single year.
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