Every year since 1985, potential college students and educators have been examining the U.S. News & World Report list of top colleges and universities to see what schools have moved up or down in ranking. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), however, are always stuck in low-ranking limbo on the revered listing.
Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell decided it was time to shine some light on the ranking process. There’s a reason why HBCUs rank notoriously low, he said. U.S. News says its college ranking formula is secret but Gladwell says HBCUs rank low in national rankings because of family income disparities.
During a recent episode of his “Revisionist History” podcast, Gladwell reported that he and a team of researchers had cracked the algorithm that ranks colleges and universities across four categories — national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional universities, and regional colleges.
A respected thought leader, Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers — “The Tipping Point,” “Blink, Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” and “David and Goliath.” He co-founded Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces the podcasts “Revisionist History” and “Broken Record,” co-hosted with heavyweight hip-hop producer Rick Rubin and New York Times writer Bruce Headlam.
For the two-part “Lord of The Rankings” episode of “Revisionist History,” Gladwell enlisted the help of Kelly McConville, an assistant professor of statistics at Reed College, and one of her former students, Huaying Qiu, who hacked the algorithm.
“U.S. News & World Report rankings seems to want to say that depending on the number of students that graduate from the school, the better that school must be,” Gladwell said.
“That is nonsense,” Gladwell asserted. “Graduation rates are not a function of the quality of education at the school. It is actually a function of the income levels of the students. If you’re from a poor family, and your dad loses his job, or your mom gets sick or something, you’ll have to drop out and go home. It has nothing to do with the school you are attending. It’s got everything to do with the family’s circumstances.”
Gladwell explored what it would take for HBCU Dillard University to rank high on the ranking system—instead of near bottom of the stack, where it currently is. The New Orleans-based HBCU is United Negro College Fund member HBCU and part of the Black Ivy League.
“Why is it that the Black Ivy League (like Dillard University) is not treated with same reverence as the white Ivy League?” Gladwell asked. Gladwell concluded that Dillard’s ranking didn’t depend on how well educated its students were, but other factors such as how wealthy the students’ families were.
According to Gladwell, if a school is composed of a student body from lower-income families, by default the graduation rates will be lower, Yahoo reported.
This means a school’s low ranking is more dependent on finances than educational quality.
“What the rankings are saying in so many words, is that it will penalize a school for attempting to educate lower-income students,” Gladwell said, using an expletive that expressed that the system is full of it.
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Gladwell told The New York Times he’s been interested for a long time in the U.S. News college ranking and how to crack its code.
“Well, I’ve always been interested in them because I’m Canadian, and I’ve always been overwhelmed with how nuts the American system of higher education is. And it strikes me that the U.S. News rankings are so emblematic of that nuttiness, a marketing ploy 30 years ago that has somehow been lodged in everyone’s brain ever since,” he said.
“And when you interrogate the criteria they use to decide whether one school’s good and one school is not good, it makes no sense,” he added. “I simply can’t get over the fact that people take this seriously.”