How College Rankings Can Hurt You

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:

Colleges and Universities That Cheat

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:

Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs

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:

The Prestige Racket

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7 Responses to How College Rankings Can Hurt You

  1. Steve September 22, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

    Your comments reflect an obvious bias against high achieving students who happen to have parents who “can afford” high college tuition. Why should my child not have an opportunity to earn a top notch college education on his/her own because (in your opinion) I can afford her full tuition? Why should I spend a large chunk of my hard-earned retirement savings if my children are smart, hard working kids who have better qualifications than other kids? I appreciate much of the information your website provides; however, you lose credibility with articles such as this which fuel the class warfare debate popular among some politicians.
    My kids want to earn their success on their own. My income should have no bearing on their ability to receive a merit-based scholarship.
    I am a physician who obtained a USAF scholarship and took out over $50,000 in loans to pay for medical school. After my military time owed and completion of professional training, I started my first “real” job at age 35. I believe people should be rewarded for their accomplishments, not simply because they belong to a certain group (wealthy, poor, skin color, gender, etc). This is what our country was based on.

  2. Krishna April 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    Hi Lynn, by the way you mentionned the Forbes, I think that the fact Forbes compiles in his ranking the debt after graduation is a good thing, is it not? We are from a low income family, debt of education is a huge issue.

    My son intents to go to engineering major in material science (or biotech). He is suggested by colleges board the Worcester University. We studied the school and realized that Worcestor has a long history of reputation. However, Worcester is badly ranked by Forbes.

    Can you give us some explaination and advices.


    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      Hi Krishna,

      I think you are referring to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) it has very poor financial aid. Low-income students should typically stay away from this school.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      • Krishna April 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

        Thank you Lynn

        Besides the WPI, what do you think about Tufts, Rice, Harvey Mudd, Boston University, Northeastern University (they are also recommended by Colleges Board) ?

        he wants to try the hard ones like MIT, Caltech, but I think it is too much (his SAT 1830, he will try an other test)

        We prepare also a back up plan with small college like Occidental which has a combine program to engineering.

        Thank you for every advices


  3. Rich February 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Hi Lynn. I agree with you that the rankings game has really encouraged some bad behavior amongst many institutions. To your point about the rankings missing what should be the colleges’ main institutional goal – “how well it educates it’s undergrads”, I was wondering what your opinion is of the separate rankings that US News published on “Colleges That Have the Best Undergraduate Teaching”? That would seem to get closer to what you are looking for. Dartmouth, which has a strong reputation for focus on undergrads tops the list, while Beloit, among others, makes the top 15 for LAC’s. Do you think this type of ranking, although still done via survey results, provides a better insight as to which colleges might be more focused on the right things – specifically providing focus on undergrad learning.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy February 7, 2012 at 3:02 am #

      Hi Rich,

      I wouldn’t put much stock in US News’s best undergraduate teaching. I hadn’t known about it, but when I read the short explanation it said these were schools mentioned in a survey of college administrators. One of the big problems that I have with the rankings is that it is heavily dependent on what people not connected to the school think and really how would they know. Also, teaching quality can vary by department and by teachers within departments. I thought it was interesting that one of the schools that was on the best teaching lists — Truman State — was on the list of the worst teaching based on rankings that Forbes compiles for its rankings.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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