Should the U.S. News & World Reports college ranking model be open source?
I had a great time giving my “Weapons of Math Destruction” talk in San Diego, and the audience was fantastic and thoughtful.
One question that someone asked was whether the US News & World Reports college ranking model should be forced to be open sourced – wouldn’t that just cause colleges to game the model?
First of all, colleges are already widely gaming the model and have been for some time. And that gaming is a distraction and has been heading colleges in directions away from good instruction, which is a shame.
And if you suggest that they change the model all the time to prevent this, then you’ve got an internal model of this model that needs adjustment. They might be tinkering at the edges but overall it’s quite clear what’s going into the model: namely, graduation rates, SAT scores, number of Ph.D’s on staff, and so on. The exact percentages change over time but not by much.
The impact that this model has had on education and how universities apportion resources has been profound. Academic papers have been written on the law school version of this story.
Moreover, the tactics that US News & World Reports uses to enforce their dominance of the market are bullying, as you can learn from the President of Reed College, which refuses to be involved.
Back to the question. Just as I realize that opening up all data is not reasonable or desirable, because first of all there are serious privacy issues but second of all certain groups have natural advantages to openly shared resources, it is also true that opening up all models is similarly problematic.
However, certain data should surely be open: for example, the laws of our country, that we are all responsible to know, should be freely available to us (something that Aaron Swartz understood and worked towards). How can we be held responsible for laws we can’t read?
Similarly, public-facing models, such as credit scoring models and teacher value-added models, should absolutely be open and accessible to the public. If I’m being judged and measured and held accountable by some model in my daily life as a citizen, that has real impact on how my future will unfold, then I should know how that process works.
And if you complain about the potential gaming of those public-facing models, I’d answer: if they are gameable then they shouldn’t be used, considering the impact they have on so many people’s lives. Because a gameable model is a weak model, with proxies that fail.
Another way to say this is we should want someone to “game” the credit score model if it means they pay their bills on time every month (I wrote about this here).
Back to the US News & World Report model. Is it public facing? I’m no lawyer but I think a case can be made that it is, and that the public’s trust in this model makes it a very important model indeed. Evidence can be gathered by measuring the extent to which colleges game the model, which they only do because the public cares so much about the rankings.
Even so, what difference would that make, to open it up?
In an ideal world, where the public is somewhat savvy about what models can and cannot do, opening up the US News & World Reports college ranking model would result in people losing faith in it. They’d realize that it’s no more valuable than an opinion from a highly vocal uncle of theirs who is obsessed with certain metrics and blind to individual eccentricities and curriculums that may be a perfect match for a non-conformist student. It’s only one opinion among many, and not to be religiously believed.
But this isn’t an ideal world, and we have a lot of work to do to get people to understand models as opinions in this sense, and to get people to stop trusting them just because they’re mathematically presented.