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New college rankings are out. Are they part of the problem?

The annual US News & World Report college rankings were released Tuesday, and critics charge they're contributing to a national college affordability problem that has seen student debt soar.

By Staff writer / September 10, 2013

People are led on a tour on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in August 2012. According to statistics released Tuesday, by US News & World Report, the average student receiving financial aid at Harvard and Yale paid about a quarter of the sticker price and most graduates leave with smaller debt than peers who attended less prestigious schools.

Elise Amendola/AP/File

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The latest college rankings from US News & World Report came out Tuesday, ending any speculation about whether Harvard, Princeton, or Yale will emerge on top this year. (It’s Princeton; last year was a tie between Princeton and Harvard.)

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But, while jockeying for the top spot can be a friendly battle among elite institutions, whose positions in the top tier are largely assured and rarely shift more than a place or two, critics charge that the rankings – along with not delivering much useful information – are contributing to the college affordability problem.

This year, the rankings come out against the backdrop of a national discussion on soaring student debt and skyrocketing tuition, and a proposal from President Obama to create a new national college ranking system – one that would emphasize things like graduation rates and sticker price.

"We’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities – you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” Obama said in a speech last month at the University of Buffalo.

Not so the US News rankings, in which sticker price doesn’t really play a factor, and there’s little effort to capture value or measure real outputs.

“They’re not asking the right questions. They’re not asking questions about value and real value. They’re focused much more on inputs like wealth and prestige and who they exclude,” says Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation.

Most students, she notes, aren’t going to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton; 80 percent go to nonselective institutions.

“What they should be asking is: Am I going to graduate? How much debt will I graduate with, and how much money will I make to help me pay off my debt?”

There are a few tweaks to this year’s rankings, including a deemphasis on the class rank of admitted students (which many high schools are doing away with), and on student selectivity overall, and more emphasis on graduation rates (not just the overall rate, but the difference between a school’s predicted graduation rate, based on the student body makeup, and actual graduation rate).

The shifts reflect a broader decision to reduce the weight of “input factors,” such as how strong a school’s freshman class is, and increase the weight of output measures.

But ultimately, a school’s standing still has a lot to do with selectivity, student SAT and ACT scores, and nebulous factors like academic reputation – computed based on a survey completed by university and college administration officials.

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