Don’t Believe the College Rankings Hype

Derek Pugh

Don’t be fooled by the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings.

The Internet is already abuzz over which college trampled the other for the race to the top of the list, released this morning. With the usual suspects taking the lead, like Harvard and Yale, you may be asking yourself why the rankings are so disingenuous.

For starters, U.S. News constantly adjusts their metrics, meaning that you can’t accurately compare one year’s rankings to another.  It also allows U.S. News to make more money—similar to how frequently textbook publishers put new editions on the market—because consumers are forced to buy updated reports every year to see what has changed (usually not a lot).

The popularity of the rankings pressures colleges and universities to game the system by focusing on what the U.S. News formula deems “important”—like increasing their applicant pool, only to turn a higher percentage away, in order to appear “more selective”. The same formula also rewards schools for spending more money, causing tuition and fees to rise to cover growing costs.

For example, Howard University—once in the top 100—dropped 22 spots in a single year. One possible reason for the dramatic drop is a recent period of turbulence regarding the school’s finances.

The measures that the rankings choose to ignore are even more perverse. U.S. News does not take into account the quality of education at each institution or the outcomes of its students upon graduation. Instead, the rankings are based on the prestige and reputation of each institution. In reality, the report is nothing more than an expensive popularity contest.

President Obama recently announced his administration’s own proposal for rating colleges, criticizing current rankings for “encourage[ing] colleges to game the numbers.” His plan, in an attempt to rein in higher ed. costs, would rate colleges on value and performance and reward them accordingly with federal aid.

To get an idea of what Obama’s ratings would look like, check out the Washington Monthly’s annual college rankings. The Monthly ranks institutions based on how they promote upward social mobility, research and public service. Their formula stresses factors such as the share of students receiving need-based Pell grants, predicted versus actual graduation rates, research expenditures and Peace Corps participation.

Going back to the example of Howard University, when using the Monthly’s performance and value measures over money and prestige, the school is ranked 93rd. Howard even made it onto the “best bang for buck” list.

Misguided college rankings, unprecedented levels of student debt (now over $1 trillion), historic funding lows, and skyrocketing higher education costs (surging more than 500 percent since 1985) have exacerbated inequality.  Students need institution ratings that provide comparable information on where they can receive a quality education at an affordable price.

Unfortunately, the Internet hysteria surrounding the U.S. News rankings will continue to consume the hearts of high school seniors until something is done to change that. Fortunately, change is closer than anyone probably realizes.

Congressional authorizing committees are already preparing to draft the next Higher Education Act (HEA), which expires at the end of this year. The re-authorization of the HEA is a chance to, once again, put students first and rebuild the middle class.

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