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.