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.

Elise Amendola/AP/File
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.

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.)

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.

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.

“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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