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Apr. 15 2010 - 5:10 am | 6,464 views | 3 recommendations | 12 comments

New U.S. News Graduate School Rankings: Why We All Care

Last night, the U.S. News released their brand new Best Graduate Schools rankings. Over on Above the Law — a site geared towards practicing attorneys, partners, and current law students — it’s one of our biggest days of the year. Students and alumni nearly crash our site looking for information and commentary about where their school is ranked.

But why? Why are students and professionals in business and law and medicine obsessed with how a for-profit magazine ranks their institution of learning? To be clear, this isn’t the college rankings, we’re not dealing with 18-year-olds looking for good place to get laid and study the philosophy of thinking for four years. We’re talking about trained professionals and would-be professionals. Doesn’t the working world value performance over prestige?

As a twice-minted Harvard graduate that has benefited from the status of my educational history more times than I probably know, I can tell you that performance wins in the end. Trust me, if performance didn’t matter I’d be rich and dictating this post from Maui to my busty, yet grammatically impeccable, secretary.

But performance is the love-child of confidence and talent, and prestige is the sexiest confidence man you’ve ever met. All U.S. News does is tap into that in order to sell magazines…

The real career enhancing treat that the Yales, and Oxfords, and Sorbonnes (and so on), give you is measured in self-confidence. On the job, everybody eventually confronts a problem that they have no clue how to handle. You get put into a situation where all you have to rely on are your instincts and your training. Some people, naturally, think they are right all the time and just plow ahead into the unknown based on their best guess. We call these people “egomaniacs” and generally hate them.

But most people have to make a calculated confidence check (a “saving throw” against confidence for the D&D geeks in the audience) before they proceed. If you went to a great school there’s a greater chance that you will stride confidently into the unknown while thinking “This is the best I can do, and my best has always been good enough.” If you went to a so-called crappy school, you might dip your toes into the unknown thinking “I really hope this is right,” and back off your considered position the minute you meet resistance. Right or wrong (over time there is no substitute for talent), the talented person who goes for it performs better than the talented person who doesn’t trust their own talent.

Before U.S. News, a few global universities had a monopoly on this “instant confidence” market. What U.S. News did was to open up the prestige market to institutions beyond the ones most steeped in tradition. Quick, which is the better business school, Kellogg or Stern? Never heard of them? Okay: Kellogg is the Northwestern business school and Stern is the NYU business school. Which one is better? Tell me. Tell me now or your resume is going into the fire!

Well, if I reference the U.S. News Business School rankings, I could tell you definitively that Kellogg is a better business school than Stern. Is it true? Doesn’t matter. It’s a fact. I just linked to it on U.S. News itself. The wonderful thing about circular arguments is that they are perfectly circular!

And that means that every NYU business school student now has to justify why they went to NYU instead of Kellogg. Oh, there are many justifications: “I wanted to stay in New York,” “I thought NYU’s emphasis on [whatever] was really important,” “My scholarship made going to NYU a better economical decision than going to some of these other schools.”

The bitch of it is that NYU M.B.A. candidates have to justify the U.S. News difference to themselves long before they are mind-f***ed by: employers, drunken bloggers, or feeling-good-about-life Kellogg students. I’ll give you an example from my own life: I got into Harvard and Yale for law school. But according to U.S. News, Yale is clearly #1 and Harvard is clearly not #1. And damned if I don’t occasionally wonder whether my aborted and soul-crushing legal career might have turned out a little bit differently had taken the offer from Yale instead of Harvard. A decade removed from the decision, I still shudder at the mere thought of the road not traveled. It’s silly, but I get angry when somebody suggests that I couldn’t get into Yale Law School. People assume that you went to the best U.S. News ranked professional school you got in to and it’s almost impossible to convince them otherwise without sounding like you have something to hide.

Sadly, U.S. News has made this kind of stupid prestige whoring accessible to anyone who buys the magazine. Back in the days before U.S. News, employers and colleagues might have cared about where you went to school. But U.S. News allows clients and customers to judge you based on nothing more than where you got your degree. Never forget, finance, law, and medicine are service industries. U.S. News gives information — sometimes dispositive information — to your customers who don’t know whether to trust you with their money.

Don’t believe me? Let’s say you have a choice about which brain surgeon has the authority to crack open your skull. All I’ll tell you about choice A is that he/she went to Johns Hopkins and finished at the top of the class. All I’ll tell you about choice B is that he/she went to medical school at UC San Francisco and finished at the top of the class. Not UC Berkeley, not UCLA, or USC, I’m bringing up UC San Fran-effeing-cisco. Who do you chose?

U.S. News makes money off of everybody that chose the Johns Hopkins doctor. But the magazine makes significantly more money off of the people who chose UC San Francisco. You see, UCSF is ranked fourth, just one spot behind third ranked Johns Hopkins. In primary care UCSF is ranked fifth while Johns Hopkins is tied at #25. Who knew?

If your brain was on the table, you’d make it your business to know; which makes U.S. News very happy.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ranks are for bragging rights. What does it mean to compare a top student from one to an average student from another?

    In the same school, my MA degree was ranked #6, then #4. Now combined with my PhD courses, my coursework would qualify me as a graduate from a #2 ranked program in the same school.
    Don’t know what any of this really means, either, when graduate specialty by specialty the ratings vary quite a bit, even though they have a lot of the same courses in common.

    Let’s just lump the colleges into tiers and be done with it, shall we? Or- Letter grades.

  2. collapse expand

    Why wouldn’t you just measure the salaries of graduates from each school, adjusted for cost-of-living? Especially if we are talking about professional schools, which students presumably don’t attend for getting laid and the philosophy of thinking.

    • collapse expand

      Well, that wouldn’t really work. Take Yale, which places a disproportionate number of graduate in clerkships — which often lead to Supreme Court clerkships — than any other school.

      Now clerks don’t get paid as much money as an average Big firm attorney. But clerking on the Court is a much bigger deal than being a random first year associate.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Salaries are an inappropriate metric. For medical students, for example, residency (I’m told) is not at a location of your choice. Instead, graduates are chosen and basically just hope they end up somewhere they’ll like. For law schools (especially recently) salary information isn’t audited by an independent body and is instead self reported by the schools.

      Also, shouldn’t the ranking of a professional education at least consider the quality of the school rather than simply the financial benefits accorded for historical prestige?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I beg to differ. I would choose an experienced and qualified doctor, according to how long he has been practicing and how his/her colleagues feel about the doctor, before I would ever consider where he went to school. I actually have never inquired into the school of a doctor nor would I ever.

  4. collapse expand

    Elie – just wanted to say I really liked this article. It was well written and insightful.

    As 1Ls, my peers and I are beholden to the one ranking that matters (how deep will a firm dip into our class to hire) and it’s driving me nuts to watch pre-law students bitch and moan about the rankings as though the number of ‘points’ a school gets – despite the spectacular methodological fail that is the USNWR rankings – matters.

    You know, there’s big business in rankings. Brian Leiter was too specialized and had too small of an impact… but ATL is getting big, and is extremely respected amongst law students and budding law students. Have y’all considered stepping into the arena, perhaps with some more relevant metrics? There’s no way to starve the U.S. News beast, but there would probably be some $$$ and some public service to create reasonable competition.

  5. collapse expand

    Ellie: hearing you pontificate on the significance of the rankings really gets tiresome. Does the world really need the insight of a “a twice-minted Harvard graduate” to finally come to terms with why certain people won’t shut up about the US News rankings?

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    About Me

    My first name is pronounced like Eliot without the “it,” my last name is pronounced like the Crystal I don’t have the “M”oney to afford. I’m an editor of Above the Law, a legal website that covers all of the gossip and business of the legal profession. Prior to that I wrote about politics. I used to be a lawyer, but I quit that profession in lieu of stripping naked and lighting myself on fire. I received a degree in Government from Harvard University because I enjoy pain, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School because I dislike change. I’m also a Met fan (pain + born in Queens).

    I’m African-American thanks to my maternal grandmother (which means there is one word I can use that white people can’t. Mwahaha). My father is from Haiti and my wife is from Zimbabwe, but outside of the northeast corridor I turn into a sniveling idiot. My maternal grandfather is from China, so I can make fun of Chinese-Americans ¼ of the time. It’d be great to go a whole year without embarrassing my mother, as Julia might say “Ye Gods, can that woman wait.”

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