Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs

Last Updated Feb 25, 2011 11:17 AM EST

Spiraling college costs are such an ingrained reality in this country that when a school does cut it's price, which is what The University of the South at Sewanee recently announced it would do, it generates a lot of publicity.

There are many reasons for runaway college costs, but today I want to focus on one explanation for higher college tuition that's rarely talked about: US News & World Report's rankings.

US News Rankings and College Costs

Here's the problem: In its rankings methodology, US News rewards schools that spend money. The magazine awards institutions that pour cash into higher faculty salaries, new science buildings and swank student unions with rankings brownie points.

In contrast, if a school tries to keep costs down or lowers its tuition -- it will certainly benefit students, but US News doesn't care. It does not reward a school like Sewanee that takes steps to make its institution more affordable.

Why does US News reward spending sprees and not institutional frugality? The magazine made that decision in the 1980s when the rankings were unveiled or maybe the better term is unleashed.

Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author and New Yorker staff writer, wrote an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker, which explores the curious college rankings methodology that US News employs. Gladwell made this observation:

US News thinks that schools that spend a lot of money on their students are nicer than those that don't, and that this niceness ought to be factored into the equation of desirability. Plenty of Americans agree: the campus of Vanderbilt University or Williams College is filled with students whose families are largely indifferent to the price their school charges but keenly interested in the flower beds and the spacious suites and the architecturally distinguished lectures halls those high prices make possible.
Of course, given that the rising cost of college has become a significant social problem in the United States in recent years, you can make a strong case that a school ought to be rewarded for being affordable.
I agree with Gladwell. Rewarding spending has surely contributed to schools creating educational palaces while graduating students with stunning college debt.

You can find a disturbing example of this by reading Daniel Luzer's excellent piece in the Washington Monthly that ran last summer which focused on the phenomenon of "lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loans" that has become the norm. In the article, The Prestige Racket, Luzer examines how George Washington University spent its way into "achieving" a higher college ranking.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.
Sewanee: University of the South image by Whitney GH. CC 2.0.

More on CBS Moneywatch:

Where Professors Send Their Children to College
Top 25 state Universities for Graduating on Time
8 Reasons Not to Get a Business Degree

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