Your College Isn't as Great as You Think

Elite colleges -- they just ain't what they used to be. Or, more precisely, there are a lot more of them than there used to be, at least if you judge by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges,  the old war horse of higher ed rankings. The American Enterprise Institute did the math and found that the number of schools in the guide's "most competitive" tier has doubled since 1991, even though the total number of institutions in its rankings has actually fallen. The other relatively prestigious categories have also fattened up, while the number of "less" competitive and "non-competitive schools" has shrunk. The chart below summarizes their findings.

Prestige_Inflation_AEI.PNG

So why are so many more schools suddenly special? There are a few factors, but a lot of it has to do with Barron's methodology. The guide looks at the GPAs, SAT scores, and class rank of each college's incoming students, as well as the school's acceptance rate. Today, about a million more students enroll in four-year institutions than in 1991, both because the college-aged population has grown, and because a larger percentage of young people are choosing to pursue a degree. Meanwhile, the number of schools has stayed steady. So more kids are competing for fewer spots. Those students also tend to apply to more schools, which drives acceptance rates even lower. Barron's also hasn't adjusted their formula to account for high school grade inflation. 

Thus, these schools have become more "competitive" whether or not they're offering a better quality education than in the past. It's yet one more reason to take college rankings with a grain of salt. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Business

Just In