Don't Pay Attention to the US News College Rankings


The new US News & World Report college rankings came out recently, and a new study claims to show that they really do matter in a virtuous (or vicious) cycle kind of way. If your school moves up in the top 25 national university list applications will increase, which will help your ranking next year, which will cause applications to increase, and so on. My reactions: 1) No kidding. 2) That's a shame.

From the abstract (via Economix):

Using admissions data for top-tier institutions from fall 1998 to fall 2005, we found that moving onto the front page of the U.S. News rankings provides a substantial boost in the following year's admissions indicators for all institutions. In addition, the effect of moving up or
down within the top tier has a strong impact on institutions ranked in the top 25, especially
among national universities. In contrast, the admissions outcomes of liberal arts colleges--
particularly those in the lower half of the top tier--were more strongly influenced by
institutional prices.

This is self-evident, and also lamentable for all the well-recited reasons. As US News does a decent job reminding readers, a high college ranking is a nice phantom laurel to rest on your shoulders, but a digit is a bad way to determine where you want to spend 4 years and $200,000. Also, there are a few ways to game the US News system (like every ranking system). I've heard from a number of college counselors and students that some colleges in the top 50 have reduced their offers and expanded their wait lists in the last few years to increase the valuable yield statistic, which is the number of students who matriculate divided by the number of the students offered admission to that school. Whether or not that specific rumor is true, rankings this widely read are bound to introduce all kinds of perverse incentives to jimmy up numbers to make your school look better. I suppose it might also advance decent incentives, like more donations from wealthy grads, but I'm inclined to believe the overall impact isn't positive.

But rather than add to the national carpfest over college rankings, I'd like to offer high school grads some happy news. My new favorite rejoinder to the college ranking game is this study concluding that the most important indicator of future success is not where you go to school, but rather where you apply. From the author: "The best school that turned you down is a better predictor of your future income than the school you actually attended.'' Words to live (and breath easy!) by, at least for your senior year of high school.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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