08/17/2007 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Rise Up Against the Rankings

Helicopter parents and overanxious high schoolers around the country are rushing to pick up U.S. News and World Report's "America"s Best Colleges" issue, which hit newsstands today. This is great news for the magazine's publishers, who reap ridiculous profits from the admissions frenzy they help fuel every year. But the continued popularity of the "rankings" is horrible for schools, for students and for fundamental American ideals like equality and fairness.

I became a critic of the rankings during the fall of my freshman year when I read an op-ed in The Atlantic Monthly by Colin Diver, president of Reed College, explaining why Reed does not participate in the rankings competition process and why other schools should follow its lead. His three main arguments were first, that "one-size-fits-all ranking schemes" undermine institutional diversity and create "an irresistible pressure toward homogeneity;" second, "the rankings reinforce a view of education as strictly instrumental to extrinsic goals such as prestige or wealth;" and third, "rankings create powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behavior for the sole or primary purpose of inflating one's score."

This third point is what gets me in the mood to write an angry blog post. Today's New York Times provides some insight into how the rankings drive schools to fudge figures by, for example, not reporting the test scores of "development cases," whose scores tend to be below average but whose families will likely donate large sums to the school. The surge in admission of "development cases" highlights how the rankings cause colleges and universities not only to disclose dubious statistics, but to alter their behavior and "devise gambits to scurry into the top ranks." Enrolling "development cases" helps schools climb the rankings by boosting the size of their endowment (a metric worth 10 percent of a school's score), providing the school with a future donor (the rankings use the percentage of alumni who give as a measure of consumer satisfaction), and improving the school's yield by admitting a student who is certain to matriculate.

It's bad enough that wealthy students can get a leg up on other applicants by having daddy donate to the development fund. But the rankings make the playing field even more unlevel by creating an incentive for schools to institute admissions policies with an eye towards yield. Let's say three students apply to a mid-level school trying to maneuver its way up the rankings. All three students have the same academic profile (grades and test scores) which would boost the school's ranking (thanks to the rankings' obsession with SAT scores). The students have identical "intangible" features (essay, extracurriculars, etc.) but two are wealthy (need no financial aid) and one is from a low-income background (needs tuition fully subsidized). If this school has $30,000 to give these three in financial aid, the rankings demand that the school splits the 30 G's in "merit-based" aid between the two rich kids and leaves the poor kid in the cold. The merit aid will entice the rich kids to come to the school, increasing the average SAT score and likely providing some cash for the endowment. Need-based aid to the qualified low-income student would be a waste, especially since if they can't offer enough aid, he won't matriculate and will hurt the school's yield.

The U.S. News and World Report has taken notice to this sort of grumbling about the rankings' impact on low-income students. This U.S. News factored into the rankings the percentage of students who are Pell Grant recipients, acknowledging the value of socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Unfortunately, the Pell figures account for an essentially insignificant proportion of the rankings. Indeed, the overall structure of the rankings continues to push schools towards enrolling wealthier students and away from recruiting and admitting low-income, minority students who might thrive despite having test scores that are often lower than those of wealthy, white applicants.

It is encouraging that a large number of colleges have joined a boycott movement against the rankings. Led by Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization which focuses on reforming college admissions, 63 presidents have signed a letter calling for others to join the campaign. The proportion of presidents who participated in the "reputational survey" in which they rank similar institutions fell to 51 percent this year from 67 percent just a few years ago, but U.S. News will not change its flawed methodology until the Harvards and Yales of the country speak out against the destructive behavior the rankings promote. Of course, these schools which sit at the top of the rankings benefit from the status quo and whichever college takes a stand first has little to gain and much to lose. Sadly, this is a prisoner's dilemma which won't get solved anytime soon.