College Rankings: The Other Inflation

How does your college choice rank?It’s the time of year when high school grads and their parents grab a copy of the latest college ranking publications from sources such as Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges and US News and World Report in hopes of slimming down their prospective colleges lists. While higher-ranked schools come with heftier tuition costs, we must ask: is it worth it? Are the college ranks giving you an accurate picture of the education you will receive?

We’ve got news for you: the recent trend shows rankings have changed and they give no guarantee you’ll be getting the quality education the higher price tag appears to offer. It’s time to read these reports skeptically and start finding supplementary sources of information to make sure your educational goal is met.

In the current Education Week, writers and researchers Frederick “Rick” Hess and Taryn Hochleitner collected and compared published college rankings from the past twenty years, and discovered the rankings system over the past two decades has changed significantly and caused what Hess considers inflation. With Barron’s, for example, he shares this data:

The number of schools in the top category doubled between 1991 and 2011. In 1991, 44 schools ranked as “most competitive.” In 2011, 87 did. The growth is due to a slew of institutions migrating up to the top tier: 17 schools moved up between 1991 and 2001, and 28 more since 2001. The ranks of the “highly” and “very competitive” have also grown steadily since 1991.

Hess goes on to ask: “Do these findings reflect more schools being ranked? Nope. The total number of schools in the rankings has barely changed, meaning that the distribution of schools has shifted.” In another publication for the American Enterprise Institute,  he writes: “[T]he club is not nearly as exclusive as it used to be.”

Barron’s isn’t the only college rank publisher whose top-tier college list has different criteria (and therefore, different weight) than it used to, but Hess and Hochleitner use it to illustrate one very important point in today’s college selection process: It’s one thing to go to a prestigious school. It’s quite another thing to get a meaningful education. Hess warns that students and parents must supplement these published reports with other sources of information to get an accurate picture of just how important one particular school’s ranking is over another’s.

Hess summarizes:

Rankings and labels can help prospective students and their parents navigate the college-selection process. But these labels need to be viewed with more care and skepticism than they often are. Faux exclusivity might be good for a school’s endowment or parents’ bragging rights, but it too often encourages families to pay top-shelf prices for store-brand merchandise. So, students and parents, choose away—but let the buyer beware.

DegreeCast, which launches before the end of June, can help fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. With data straight from the schools, you can discover tuition costs, book costs, and individual program information, as well as information on the school’s staffing and relationships with various corporations. We’re excited about DegreeCast’s launch, and we hope to help students of all types — new, returning, and adult non-traditional — get the data they need to meet their own educational goals.

Aside from school rankings, what other criteria do you use to find the college or program that’s right for you? Leave us a comment and tell us what you’re looking for.