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College rankings are under fire. Is there a better way to rate the value of a degree?

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A growing chorus of critics is questioning how the media and other groups rank the nation's colleges, arguing that such lists help neither students nor their families and may obscure better ways of judging the quality of higher education.

Millions of high school seniors are currently picking colleges to apply to this fall, with applications due between November and January for enrollment in the 2023-24 academic year. 

Colleges, meanwhile, inundate prospective applicants each fall with materials touting their top placement on U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings: "#1 in teaching year after year," proclaims Carlton College, linking to its rank at U.S. News & World Report. "Top 20: Rutgers rises in the national rankings," the New Jersey public university says on its website.

But U.S. News & World Report and similar rankings are under fire as they are increasingly seen as engines that reinforce income inequality and status. Some of the methodology behind the rankings measures qualities such as "reputation" and "faculty compensation" — aspects that some critics say have nothing to do with a college's ability to educate students. And Columbia University's slide in rankings this year, after it admitted it sent incorrect data to U.S. News, has raised questions about the quality of information submitted by universities as well as whether some may be fudging their data to climb in status.

"In the relentless quest that post-secondary institutions are on — to go up in the rankings — it means the institutions can behave in ways that aren't in service of the public good," noted Tim Knowles, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The competitiveness of rankings "creates an arms race," he added. "It doesn't serve them or their students well."

A "proxy for wealth"

U.S. News & World Report's rankings are emblematic of a wider problem with higher education, said Evan Mandery, the author of the new book "Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us" and a professor at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Schools such as Princeton (No. 1 on U.S. News & World Report) and Harvard (No. 3) may boast of providing free tuition to low- and middle-income students, but the most competitive colleges enroll fourteen times the number of students from the top quintile of the income distribution compared with those at the bottom, his book notes. 

"Every factor that U.S. News values is a direct or indirect proxy for wealth," said Mandery, who himself is a Harvard graduate. "The U.S. News rankings have played a role in elite colleges doubling down on asset hoarding and creating pathways that are available only to the elites."

He added, "The best school is where my student is going to learn the most." 

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What qualities make a good school?

Education experts are increasingly asking whether there are more effective methods of evaluating colleges, as well as assessing the value of a college degree. 

"Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans,"  Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said at an August conference.  

A focus on economic mobility, meaning whether specific colleges can help students climb the socioeconomic ladder, comes at a time when children in the U.S. are less likely to escape poverty and climb into affluence than children in other developed nations. 

In the last few years, more rankings have emerged that seek to provide data on economic mobility metrics for college, including U.S. News & World Report, which added a social mobility ranking in 2018 by assessing graduation rates for recipients of Pell Grants, who are from low- and middle-income families.

The center-left think tank Third Way ranks colleges by economic mobility, examining how they perform for low-income students. Among its top performers are many public universities, ranging from SUNY College at Plattsburgh to Portland State University in Oregon. Meanwhile, some Ivy League colleges, such as Harvard and Brown, rank near the bottom for social mobility. 

And the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is now retooling its Carnegie Classifications, which designate schools by type — such as research universities or liberal arts colleges. The new Carnegie Classifications will add a category that measures how specific post-secondary institutions impact social and economic mobility — an effort that will be completed in 12 to 18 months, Knowles said. 

The traditional college rankings have an "exclusivity indicator of how many people apply and how many people get rejected," which is "deeply problematic," Knowles said. "If you are lucky to get into one of those and get the financial support you need so you don't leave with tremendous debt, that can be a wonderful experience for the individual."

He added, "But for the economy and democracy, we need to think about it differently."

Pandemic, inflation and scandals

Since U.S. News & World Report began ranking colleges almost 40 years ago, much has changed about the pursuit of a bachelors degree — with cost arguably at the top of the list. A year of tuition at a private university has soared more than fivefold during that time, or more than double the rate of inflation. 

But this year, colleges and students are entering the application process after a bruising period that has included the pandemic, the highest inflation in four decades and increasing questions from families about the value of a costly college degree, which can top $200,000 at some four-year private colleges. 

College enrollment has tumbled 4.7% from a year ago, representing a loss of more than 662,000 students, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Scandals and unethical behavior surrounding admissions and rankings at top colleges have also prompted questions about the fairness of who gets admitted and why. Those include the admissions scam of 2019 — when parents were found to have paid millions to ensure their kids got into Yale, Georgetown and other top universities.

The Supreme Court appears poised to eliminate affirmative action in admissions, recently hearing a case from the group Students for Fair Admissions that argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants by assigning them lower ratings than other races and limiting the number it admits.

And earlier this year, Columbia University slid to No. 18 on U.S. News & World Report's rankings after admitting it sent incorrect data to the publication, which was flagged by Michael Thaddeus, a math professor at the school. And Columbia isn't alone in sending incorrect data to the publication: University of Southern California Rossier School of Education in June said it misreported data to U.S. News about the selectivity of its doctoral programs for several years, for instance.

"The rankings are not meaningful or accurate in the first place," Thaddeus wrote to CBS MoneyWatch. "The whole practice of ranking universities is not a good way of describing educational quality. In the memorable words of Colin Diver, 'Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies. The entire enterprise is flawed, not only in detail but also in conception'."

At the same time, the drop in enrollment threatens to reverse a long-term trend in the U.S. of a greater share of Americans earning college degrees. About 4 in 10 adults over the age of 25 have a college degree, compared with 3 in 10 in 2011, according to Pew Research. In 1970, only about 1 in 9 Americans had a bachelor's degree, according to government data.

"They want a top 20 school"

Despite the misgivings of many experts, U.S. News & World Report retains its cachet — particularly when it comes to gaining an acceptance to the top-ranked universities.

"I have some families who will consult the U.S. News & World Report rankings as if that's the most important thing," said Michelle McAnaney, a college admissions expert who runs The College Spy, an admissions consulting company. "They are coming to me and saying they want a top 20 school — they mean top 20 in U.S. News & World Report."

She added, "I don't think they are educated about what goes into deciding into which schools are in the top of the rankings. When they are educated, they take it with a grain of salt."

For its part, U.S. News & World Report said it is constantly adjusting its methodology to "reflect a better sense of the landscape" and to ensure its rankings "stay incredibly relevant," according to executive chairman Eric Gertler. 

In response to Columbia's data issues, Gertler said the publication expects colleges and universities "to provide accurate, transparent data."

"We take our role seriously. We live in a world where tuition and fees are quite high, and it is absolutely appropriate that [students] get the best possible experience for their money," he added. "If that puts pressure on universities to provide the best possible education, then we are doing our service."

Ivy League salaries

Of course, the top-ranked schools can only accept a small percentage of the nation's students, and the nation has thousands of other post-secondary institutions to choose from.

But earning a seat at a top-ranked school isn't only about bragging rights, but the perception that a degree from one of those universities can open doors — and higher incomes — for their grads. There's some truth to that, with data finding that Ivy League grads tend to earn higher salaries

"From an economic prospect, it's a complete insurance policy against downward mobility," noted Mandery of gaining acceptance at one of the "Ivy-plus" colleges. 

Of course, not everyone can secure a spot to Harvard or Yale, and there are thousands of other institutions that can provide a lifetime lift to their grads. Some schools that may not be at the top of the rankings are still "hidden gems" that can help students achieve their goals, McAnaney noted.

Placing emphasis on academic reputation to score an institution "isn't necessarily helpful to a family deciding on the quality of eduction their child will get," McAnaney noted.

Rising skepticism

A college degree is often the best path to secure higher lifetime income. Young adults between 22 to 27 with a bachelor's degree earned a median annual wage of $52,000 in 2021, but workers the same age with only a high school degree earned $30,000. 

But some Americans are increasingly skeptical about the tradeoff: Is it worth spending tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more, and taking on debt to get a degree? Families are increasingly evaluating colleges by return on investment, noted Jim Fowler, vice president for enrollment management at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. 

"That is directly correlated to rising costs and some economic conditions like the 2008 recession, where everybody thought they knew about what it takes to be financially successful over a lifetime, and that blew up," Fowler said. "Absolutely, people are much more cost sensitive and want to know they are getting a return on that investment and know their investment will have value."

Universities are under increasing pressure to deliver for students, noted U.S. News & World Report's Gertler. "We are at a critical time," he said. "What you are seeing today is there are some students that are voting with their feet, that are deciding that college may not be the best opportunity for them right now."

Colleges are grappling with enrollment declines due to COVID and the strong job market — which is making it more appealing for some high school grads to jump into the workforce rather than get a college degree, Fowler said. 

But over time, bachelor's degree holders far out-earn peers with only high school diplomas, pulling in about $1.2 million in additional income over their lifetimes.

"All the data that I've seen suggests that, increasingly, you need a post-secondary degree — not necessarily a college degree, it could be a professional certificate, but you need it to participate meaningfully in the economy," Knowles said. "You have more and more Americans saying, 'It's not worth it to go to college,' yet you have an economy that is demanding it."

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