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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.

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In a well-known New Yorker essay, What College Rankings Really Tell Us, Malcolm Gladwell criticized the circular logic of basing so much on subjective reputation – especially of such a huge pool of institutions, few of which are likely to be known well by the survey respondents.

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“When US News asks a university president to perform the impossible task of assessing the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about, he relies on the only source of detailed information at his disposal that assesses the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about: US News,” wrote Mr. Gladwell. “The US News ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But beyond merely telling readers little that’s really useful, the rankings, Ms. Laitinen and others argue, actively hurt college affordability in significant ways.

The rankings have become important to most schools in terms of their prestige and ability to attract students. As a result, the schools often spend money in unnecessary and inefficient ways in an effort to improve facilities and grounds and improve their reputation. The rankings reward this kind of spending, while doing nothing to encourage schools to charge less, serve more low-income students, or improve cost-efficiency.

Laitinen also talks about the “edifice complex.”

“There are incentives for schools to spend money on four-star dining halls and rock climbing walls and big buildings,” she says. “Colleges generally aren’t rewarded in the prestige game for how many low-income students they graduated, but they are for how many buildings went up.”

The rankings also give colleges incentives to essentially “buy” more academically prepared students to increase their average SAT scores – whether through “merit aid” programs or spending on facilities that will attract such students – rather than to focus on decreasing students’ debt load or giving need-based aid.

A big hurdle, notes Laitinen and others, is that some of the most important outcome-based data – particularly earnings of college graduates – isn’t available to US News or colleges or anyone trying to create rankings. The reason: a 2008 law, pushed by the higher education lobby, that prevents the federal government from collecting this data.

Even the graduation-rate data is incomplete, since it only tracks full-time students at the school they start at – ignoring, for instance, the many students who start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution.

US News did release a list of “Best Value” schools, based on a school’s academic quality (measured in the US News rankings) along with the average cost after financial aid is factored in. The top schools aren’t much different – Harvard ranks No. 1 – though Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, manages to squeeze into the Top 10 (It’s No. 62 in the overall rankings).

A few schools rose significantly in the rankings this year, including Penn State and Boston University in the national university list. And several others, including Howard University and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey-Newark, fell quite a few spots (the two are both ranked 142nd).

Families interested in ratings that take a different tack can look at the Washington Monthly rankings, released several weeks ago, which emphasize low tuition, willingness to enroll low-income students, graduation rates, and community service.

Or they can wait to see whether the ranking system proposed by Obama – which would not only try to measure value, but would tie federal student-aid dollars to how well colleges deliver value – ever becomes a reality.

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