The Perilous Race to the Top of College Rankings

Every September, college presidents, administrators, and trustees await the release of next year’s list of “Best Colleges” from U.S. News and World Report with bated breath.  Climbing in the rankings means more prestige and acclaim, and probably money, for the school—falling in the rankings likely means the opposite. 

The criteria used to rate schools values spending more money per student, recruiting students from wealthier backgrounds, and driving down acceptance rates. These values together have created a spending arms race that has driven college tuition exponentially upwards and made colleges less socioeconomically diverse. The rating system, a requisite consideration for many college administrative decisions, runs counter to the goals and ideals of the American higher education system. 

According to U.S. News and World Report themselves, tuition has skyrocketed across all types of U.S. higher education.  From 1995 to 2015, the average tuition and fees at a U.S. private college increased by 179 percent, from under $15,000 in 1995 to just under $40,000 in 2015. In the same time frame, out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities went up by 226 percent and in-state tuition and fees jumped by 296 percent. 

The reasons for this colossal hike in tuition are complicated and numerous, and it would be misleading to place blame solely on one actor. That being said, the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings have played a significant role. A closer look at the criteria used to rank schools reveals the reason for this. 

17 percent of their ranking decision comes from how much money a school decides or is able to spend. Of this, seven percent is based on spending per faculty member, 10 percent is based on spending per student. The expenditures listed under spending per student are described as money focused on “instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services, and institutional support.” While this sounds reasonable—the more a school spends on instruction, the better that instruction is likely to be—the “student services” and “institutional support” categories have precipitated spending increases on new offices and support centers for students, which, while beneficial in some ways, are quite expensive.

Colleges high on the U.S. News and World Report rankings are increasingly becoming primary places for the super rich. A New York Times report—that most of us are probably familiar with at this point—used tax return data from students attending college between 1998 and 2009 to find that 38 colleges in the United States enroll more students from the top one percent income bracket than the bottom 60 percent. This type of socioeconomic homogeneity turns colleges into institutions that perpetuate cycles of poverty and further stratify American society by class.

A big part of the reason for the lack of socioeconomic diversity at our nation’s top schools is the price of tuition. But even at some need-blind schools that meet all required aid, such as Middlebury College, this lack of socioeconomic diversity persists. Middlebury is ranked number nine for the title of least socioeconomically diverse schools in the nation. Here, once again, the U.S. News and World Report rankings come into play.

Of all the criteria for the U.S. News and World Report ranking, five percent comes from alumni giving. While theoretically this is designed to measure alumni loyalty and financial success post-college, in practice, alumni who give generously often come from wealthy families, so schools with higher alumni giving rates often have those because they admit a lot of wealthy students. Also, about eight percent of the criteria comes from students’ SAT and ACT scores, which, while still the dominant way to test aptitude across the country, heavily favors the wealthy. In fact, studies from the Wall Street Journal show that family income is the number one predictor of success on the SAT. None of the criteria for the ranking includes anything about diversity—socioeconomic or racial.

Colleges can opt out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings system. Reed College in Portland, Ore. does not fill out its annual peer evaluations and statistical surveys that are necessary to appear in the rankings. Colin Diver, former president of Reed, had a more philosophical criticism of the ranking system, which is worth including here: “One-size-fits-all ranking schemes undermine the institutional diversity that characterizes American higher education. The urge to improve one’s ranking creates an irresistible pressure toward homogeneity, and schools that, like Reed, strive to be different are almost inevitably penalized. [Also], the rankings reinforce a view of education as strictly instrumental to extrinsic goals such as prestige or wealth; this is antithetical to Reed’s philosophy that higher education should produce intrinsic rewards such as liberation and self-realization,” Diver states.

Since Reed has opted out of the rankings, it has continued to thrive as a prestigious institution. More college presidents and administrations, including our own here at CC, should follow suit. 

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