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Why U.S. News' college rankings should make you mad


U.S. News & World Report coronated Princeton today as the nation's No. 1 university while Harvard and Yale followed close behind.

Williams College emerged as the No. 1 liberal arts college while Amherst and Swarthmore came in second and third. As usual, none of these results are surprising.

The percentage of Americans who care about this rankings ritual is quite small. Affluent parents are the most likely to pour over the results of this annual collegiate beauty contest if they have high-achieving teenagers who attend exclusive private high schools or public schools in wealthy areas. The self-induced stress that high achievers (and their parents) experience as they contemplate what will happen if they don't get into one of the rankings powerhouses can be debilitating and, frankly, over the top.

U.S. News & World Report reveals college rankings

Most of the nation's college-bound teenagers don't give a hoot about the likes of Princeton or Williams. The vast majority of students will attend community colleges or regional state universities less than 100 miles away from their homes. But while the collegiate beauty contest isn't relevant to most families, U.S. News' rankings have hurt millions of college-bound students, who have become collateral damage in the rankings arms race.

How U.S. News' rankings hurt families

The rankings have encouraged very bad behavior from schools that are attempting to claw their way up to a better rankings perch. S chools which have been publicly embarrassed for questionable rankings behavior include such institutions as Emory, U.S. Naval Academy, George Washington, Claremont McKenna, Clemson, Bucknell and Baylor. It's understandable that the casual observer would assume that the egregious behavior is confined to isolated cases.

But what has been largely overlooked is how state and private colleges and universities across the country have changed the way they conduct business, which has hurt many average American teenagers. Here are four ways:

1. Rankings hurt financial aid chances

Schools have increasingly siphoned money from need-based financial aid that has traditionally helped middle and lower income students and reallocated cash to merit scholarships for wealthier students. One reason why schools are throwing merit awards at rich teens is because they are more likely to help institutions fare better in the rankings game.

These affluent students tend to have better academic backgrounds and higher standardized test scores, which are highly correlated with income. You can learn more about how this policy is devastating for disadvantaged students by reading Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind by Stephen Burd at the New American Foundation.

2. Rankings encourage schools to overspend.

The rankings methodology rewards schools that sink money into their facilities, including beautifying their campuses with shiny structures. Walk on plenty of college campuses and you'll stumble across construction zones. Somebody has to pay for all of this and it's usually the students.

Plenty of schools have tried to improve their rankings by building their way out of their reputations as ordinary commuter campuses. To see how this can manifest itself, check out this new story about Northeastern University in Boston Magazine - How to Game the College Rankings - and an older piece about George Washington University in the Washington Monthly - The Prestige Racket.

3. Rankings don't penalize huge debt.

Strangely enough, while U.S. News rewards schools for spending, the rankings giant doesn't care if students have to go into deep debt to earn a degree on their respective campuses. It's a tragic omission that certainly has played a part in runaway college costs.

4. The rankings encourage rejection.

U.S. News awards brownie points to schools that reject high percentages of students. This has encouraged schools to recruit students that they have no intention of accepting. Schools make it easier for students to apply to schools with shortened applications - often called VIP apps or fast apps. More applications makes it easier for schools to reject more students which makes them look more exclusive.

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