College rankings create slanted incentives for schools

Diane Sun

Each September, the release of the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges Ranking is a testament to the conflict of values surrounding higher education. Students and university stakeholders alike aspire for their institutions to rise in the ranks, but often without full appreciation of the cost of such a feat.

For the USNWR rankings, much of its measurement criteria — including faculty pay, alumni giving rate, selectivity and spending per student — are only tenuously related to academic quality. They are also readily exploitable. Rather than improve on the quality of instruction, it is far easier for institutions to pursue these metrics as ends in themselves.

There are a myriad of small measures colleges have taken to influence their standing. Schools hire firms to solicit donations from long-lost alumni, inflate faculty salaries and benefits or bribe students to retake their SATs. However, the most effective way to game such a system is to fundamentally change the institutional mission and sacrifice accessibility in the name of prestige.  

The rankings place undue emphasis on an institution’s inputs rather than its outputs — in this case, the quality of the incoming class —  before they even set foot in their chosen institution. As such, colleges have perverse incentive to pander to the students least in need of the social mobility that a college education grants: Those who come from an affluent background and who arrive pre-equipped with high class ranks and standardized test scores and are all but guaranteed to graduate.

Colleges are so enamored with wealthy students, who can afford the tuition that finances the rankings game, that 10 percent of admissions officers admit they give preferential status to affluent students who are full-pay regardless of academic standing, according to a report by the New America Foundation.

Furthermore, colleges divert the flow of state and federal aid money intended to help low-income students into attracting affluent and out-of-state students in the form of “merit-based aid,” which exists in name only. The Department of Education reports that over 40 percent of students with a college GPA of 2.99 or below receive merit aid at four-year institutions.

In this climate, students from low-income backgrounds and first generation students remain forgotten. Yet colleges who pander to the rankings are handsomely rewarded. Schools who manage to attain top 25, or “front page” status, receive 3.9 percent more applications from students in subsequent years, particularly from students who graduated in the top decile of their class.   

Government associate professor Kenneth Greene describes this effect as a positive-feedback process. “Students with stronger applications may sort into colleges with higher ‘perceived academic quality,’ thereby making them higher quality in both reputation and in fact,” Greene wrote in an email.

Ultimately, there is great irony embedded in the story of the Best Colleges Ranking. First published in 1983, it aimed to help prospective college students following two decades of rapidly increasing and democratized access to education. Now, the same rankings are, in part, responsible for the spiraling costs that threaten to price college out of reach for many.

Sun is a business honors, accounting and government junior from Sugar Land. Follow her on Twitter @sun_diane.