A different perspective on US News rankings — what do students think?

I am sure many of you are watching with curiosity the furor in the press over academic institutions, specifically law schools and medical schools, exiting the rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Recent news articles and commentaries have provided various perspectives. The issues to the public must seem arcane at best, but a little deeper view highlights some of the culture wars taking place in our country today.

So really what is the issue you ask? Good question. 

USNWR has taken the view that it uses mostly objective data and is just one point of information that students can use in making educated choices. The deans of schools have taken the position that it emphasizes the wrong metrics and prevents the schools from building a diverse class. These views are only partially true.

We took the unique approach of asking our students at [Houston-based] Baylor College of Medicine. When asked, our students said that the U.S. News ranking was not a significant factor in their decision about where to attend medical school. Why? 

As the average medical student debt has ballooned to more than $200,000, students care more about debt burden and living expenses. In a profession that a generation or so ago believed the key to educating great doctors was to cull the weak from the strong by subjecting students to high-stress training, students today are interested in a supportive learning environment. As they prepare to practice medicine in the information age, with an unprecedented pace of clinical innovation and continual change, students are interested in effective pedagogy and a modern curriculum that equips them to deliver the best possible care to their patients throughout the duration of their careers. The U.S. News rankings measure none of these factors, and therefore, lack relevance to most students.

Does the ranking prevent a selection committee from assembling a diverse class as the deans suggest? No. Most schools have done this despite the rankings for years. The objective metrics used in the rankings are expressed as median values, not averages, so there is a lot of flexibility in crafting a matriculating class that would not affect the median score, the point at which 50 percent are above the middle and 50 percent are below. The reality is that the deans really want to be relieved of the burden of addressing these rankings which take on an overblown expectation by the lay readership. It is a game that many of us get tired of playing, particularly since it isn't really helping students.

What could USNWR do to be more helpful to students and better reflect the diversity of medical schools? I would suggest five opportunities to make the ranking more useful to students. 1. Add metrics that are important to students like student debt, cost of living, and learning environment; 2. Use broader metrics for research funding (include all sources of government funding) so students who are interested in pursuing a research- focused experience better understand the diversity of the research opportunities; 3. Add the percentage of students who choose primary care fields so students can get a sense of the balance of career choices; and 4. Remove the "reputational" score, since only about one-fifth of the deans even respond to the survey, so it is not only subjective, but also statistically inaccurate.

This composite score would likely reflect the most well-rounded schools that could expose students to multiple career options. Most students arrive with unclear career aspirations, and a well-rounded learning environment helps them choose the right path. And finally, my fifth and last suggestion: Change the rankings to quartiles. Is there really a difference between one and two? Doubtful. But there probably is between one and 30. 

Let's also be clear, these rankings of medical schools were never about student choice. This is a business, and USNWR gets paid for use of their advertising badges. I don't think their business model would suffer by trying to be a better source of information for students.

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