Status Isn’t About Features

Malcom Gladwell complains that US News rankings are arbitrary:

Some years ago … a former chief justice of the Michigan supreme court … sent a questionnaire to a hundred or so of his fellow lawyers, asking them to rank a list of tend laws schools in order of quality. “They included a good sample of the big names. Harvard. Yale. University of Michigan. And some lesser-known schools. John Marshall Thomas Cooley. … They ranked Pen State’s law school right about in the middle of the pack. Maybe fifth among the ten schools listed. Of course, Penn State doesn’t have a law school.” … Reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution’s identity, such as its history, its prominence in the media, or the elegance of its architecture. …

“Ratings drive reputation.” … When U.S. News asks a university president to perform the impossible task of assessing the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about, he relies on the only sources of detailed information at his disposal … U.S. News. The U.S. News ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy. …

A Web site called the Ranking Game[‘s] …intention is to demonstrate just how subjective rankings are, to show how determinations of “quality” turn on relatively arbitrary judgments about how much different variables should be weighted. … If we don’t understand what thee right proxies for college quality are, let alone how to represent those proxies in a comprehensive heterogenous grading system, then our rankings are inherently arbitrary.

Gladwell talks as if we each have different preferences over component variables, and are being fooled into putting too much weight on arbitrary common rankings that poorly reflect our individual preferences. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that what we really want is status itself, a common perception of quality, and don’t much care what status is made of.  We mainly want to know how to rate others’ status, and how to get more of it for ourselves.

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  • I went to the University of Michigan, which was also ranked highly for some programs that did not exist. It was a convenient case study in survey research and evaluation.

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  • It’s cute how when one initially tries to go deeper into the New Yorker article, the “subscribe” page initially features a blurry aristocrat appearing to give the reader his middle finger (he’s actually holding a monocle).

  • Not quite that extreme. Remember those guppy studies where a less-orange-than-ideal male can become a sex star if enough females are made to crowd around him, so that other females perceive him as higher status.

    However, once his color brilliance slips below a threshold, the trick fails. So hype, good ratings, favorable word-of-mouth, etc., only works if they already meet some to-be-determined-empirically threshold of quality.

  • Aron

    I think the aetherial substance is called phlostatuston. There’s a reactor that breeds the substance in the basement of Harvard, maybe MIT. Larry Bird went off tour one day and tampered with it directly and his hair went curly.

  • arch1

    In reacting to the UPenn ranking as he did, Gladwell appears to be, well, assuming a fact not in evidence.

    All that one can really glean from UPenn’s reported ranking is that survey participants’ typical weighting of existence was not so huge as to swamp the aggregate effect of the many other attributes (cost, dropout rate, faculty/student ratio, average earnings upon graduation, hire rate, …) which are arguably relevant to a law school’s quality.

    Somewhat ironically (for an essay ostensibly stressing the value of objectivity and integrity in data analysis), Gladwell’s own analysis appears to implicitly reflect his own bias that such a weighting is unacceptable.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Regardless, it makes sense to me to have some schools that we regard as being “better” than other schools so that the smartest students and faculty will flock to those schools and fraternize with each other.

    • Which would subsequently result in those very schools actually being better?

  • Mendel Schmiedekamp

    Penn State has had a law school for a few years now. It used to be called Dickinson.

  • lemmy caution

    I bet Penn State’s law school is now, or will soon be, close to the rank that the questionnaire’s respondents gave for it.

    The US news list does have the benefit of indicating the received wisdom on school quality to those who don’t have access to this info. This is valuable.