Remarks on College Rankings and Data by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the Conference on Best Practices for Law School Data

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Remarks on College Rankings and Data by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the Conference on Best Practices for Law School Data

March 2, 2023

Good morning. Great to be here with you. Thank you for joining and to those who are streaming. I want to thank Dean Gerken and Dean Manning for their agenda-setting leadership.

Since this conference is about data, I want to start with a number: 163.

Does anyone know the significance of 163?

Before you start Googling, I'll tell you …163 is the number of years that have passed between the founding of Yale Law School and when U.S. News and World Report first started ranking law schools. For Harvard, it's 170.

Imagine that.

For well over a century, you thrived without catering to a glossy magazine or a flashy website.

My colleague is here today, Under Secretary James Kvaal. Stand up, James! He's a Harvard Law grad himself. When he told me about your decision to withdraw from U.S. News, we agreed it was a monumental step forward.

You know, for me, it was a turning point around what we're trying to do together to improve access and equity in our higher education institutions. I'm here today because of that courageous leadership, because of those decisions.

Look, Harvard and Yale are world famous. You could've wiped your hands clean of the rankings and called it a day. Instead, and really importantly, you're here bringing leaders together to talk about what comes next.

It's not enough to abandon a broken system. The real work is building a better one, for everyone. You're taking the lead on that.

The need for solutions is even more urgent at the undergraduate level. Colleges spend enormous resources chasing rankings they feel carry prestige, but in practice, just xerox privilege and drive-up costs.

This does nothing to solve our most pressing higher education challenges. We need a system that's inclusive, that delivers value, and that produces equitable outcomes. We need transparency in data more now than ever before.

Did you know that nearly 60 percent of Black college students and nearly half of Latino students never complete their degrees, usually because of financial challenges?

Imagine the price we've paid as a country for normalizing these inequities. Imagine the talent and potential lost because of those data.

There's a cruel irony in our current higher education system. Our most underserved students typically attend our most-underfunded colleges. These schools are accessible and inclusive, but they often lack the resources to help students complete their degrees.

Meanwhile, rankings discourage institutions with the largest endowments and greatest capacity to enroll and graduate more underserved students from doing so because it may hurt their selectivity. Instead, the most life-changing higher education opportunities go to young people who already have every socioeconomic advantage.

Rankings have created an unhealthy obsession with selectivity.

We need a culture change, or what Heifetz and Laurie wrote in the Harvard Business Review, an adaptive shift.

It's time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report.

It's time to focus on what truly matters: delivering value and upward mobility.

Data can help us get there. Our department hosts a free online tool called the College Scorecard to help students and families make more informed decisions. The scorecard provides data on college costs, graduation rates, employment, student debt, and more.

Transparency is paramount from colleges and from ranking publications.

Last year, our team restored access to data the previous administration effectively disabled. Today, students can explore post-graduate earnings for every school and see which ones leave students better off for attending. And we can see which schools truly walk the walk on equity and inclusion.

Last year, I invited college leaders who are raising the bar for inclusivity and student success to Washington, D.C., to the Department of Education to share their insights. It was a powerful convening, where we saw and heard from schools and about the best practices to promote inclusivity, to promote upward mobility. Some are doing incredible things with data, like identifying students at risk of dropping out and offering support before it's too late.

Our challenge, our collective challenge, is to bring those strategies to scale across the country. To empower institutions with more data to hold themselves accountable. To ensure higher education lives up to the promise as a pathway to a better life, like it did for me as a first-generation college student.

Government will not drive this work. You will. The collective wisdom in this room and across the country will drive us to where we need to go.

There is no road map for this. Many medical schools are already following suit. And just this week, Colorado College became the first liberal arts college to withdraw from U.S. News. The power of example is proven here.

You are all leaders. You all have influence. Exercise it. Tell your colleagues across higher education that they set the agenda, not some for-profit magazine.

Tell them to admit more students of color, admit more Pell Grant recipients. Admit them. Enroll them. Support them. And propel them to graduation day and rewarding careers.

If it costs you a spot on the annual rankings, then wear it like a badge of honor! That is the work of leadership now in education, folks.

The pandemic and the experience of leading during the pandemic sharpened our swords for the real fight ahead. That's why I'm here today. You accepted the challenge.

You know, a lot of people talk about leading. I was in Connecticut, reopening schools, and they say, 'leading during a pandemic must've been the hardest thing you did.'

No, but it taught me lessons. It taught me that I need to be interdependent with health experts, with OSHA experts, with education leaders, with people who maybe didn't always agree with me that we were going to safely reopen schools. And we came together with different opinions to try to figure out something that hadn't been figured out ever before. And we did it.

Let's use those lessons here. There is no road map. This is uncharted territory. But it's the right thing to do. Coming together, with different perspectives, to solve this.

That's the challenge of leadership moving forward. To recognize, like we did in our schools, that reopening and going back to the way things were in 2019 is not good enough; it's failing our kids. Taking advantage of the pandemic's disruption to do it better. Well, that's what you're doing in essence here. And I commend you for that.

Together, we can reimagine a new culture in higher education, one that values equity and inclusivity over privilege and selectivity. Together, we will reimagine what it means to be excellent. Thank you very much.