Yesterday, in writing about the latest college rankings scandal on my college blog, I mentioned that the institutional pursuit of college rankings glory, has hurt millions of students in ways they can’t even imagine. Today I want to elaborate on that observation.
If you missed yesterday’s post, here it is:
Millions of students are adversely impacted by the rankings competition because of the actions of the audience that cares most deeply about the numbers – college presidents and their boards of trustees, and by extension, their admission offices. For these folks, US News has provided them with an easy (though deeply flawed) scorecard to measure how their institutions are faring and they are distraught if their school’s ranking stalls out, or worse, drops.
What the Rankings Don’t Measure!
Perhaps aggressive pursuit of higher rankings wouldn’t be a bad thing if the rankings actually measured what sort of job a college or university was doing to educate its undergrads. One of the perverse aspects about the rankings is that turning out thoughtful, articulate young men and women, who can write cogently and think critically won’t budge a school’s ranking up even one spot. Curiously enough, U.S. News doesn’t even attempt to measure the type of learning going on at schools.
Unfortunately, the methodology fueling the rankings are a collection of subjective measurements that students and families are supposed to rely upon to pinpoint the schools doing the best job of educating undergraduates. U.S. News relies on proxies for educational quality, but these proxies are dubious at best.
Colleges Behaving Badly
Here are just three of the ways that the rankings hurt students and their parents:
1. Rankings encourage colleges to favor affluent students.
Many teenagers end up as collateral damage in the rankings race because schools that are more selective are rated higher, which encourages them to accept more wealthy students. US News awards schools which generate higher test scores and grade point averages from their freshmen. This focus on selectivity has been a boon for affluent high school students, who tend to enjoy better academic profiles. These teens can afford expensive test-prep courses and are more likely to have attended schools with stronger academic offerings. There is a strong positive correlation between standardized test scores and family income.
Before the rankings became so prominent, rich students typically had to pay full price for college. The majority of grants were reserved for middle-class and low-income students, who required financial help. But with the rankings premium linked to top students, private and public institutions began offering merit scholarships to entice smart, wealthy students to their campuses rather than to their competitors.
How do you cough up the money for these deal sweeteners? One way is to raise the tuition price to generate extra revenue for these scholarships and another way is to reduce the financial aid to needy students.
The only schools that don’t offer merit scholarships to rich students are the institutions that don’t have to. Wealthy parents whose children get into Harvard or Swarthmore will be happy to write checks worth a quarter of a million dollars or more. The most elite schools boast that they reserve their aid to the families who need financial help to attend college, but most of these institutions offer admissions to a shamefully low percentage of needy students.
2. Rankings encourage admission tricks
US News’ algorithm also favors schools that spurn more students. To increase their rejection rates, some schools will court students through marketing materials and social media that they have no intention of accepting. Here’s another trick: some institutions have made it easy for students to apply via streamlined online applications, which are referred to in the industry as “fast apps.” Schools use this strategy to increase the size of their student body, as well as bump up their rejection rates.
3. Rankings encourage debt.
Sadly, what the rankings giant ignores is how much debt students are incurring at their schools. It’s a terrible omission that is certainly one reason why college tuition continues to defy inflation. US News rewards schools that spend freely and the rankings juggernaut doesn’t care if that requires universities to boost their prices and graduate students with staggering debt.
I wrote a post about this phenomenon years ago for CBS MoneyWatch. Here is the link:
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article for The New Yorker a few years ago on college rankings in which he talked about the incentive of institutions to turn their campuses into lavish palaces and stick the bill with the kids:
Finally, I’d urge you to read an article in the Washington Monthly that focuses on George Washington University, one of the countless schools that’s been guilty of this bad behavior. Here is the link: