This fall some two million high school seniors will apply to one of the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in the United States. It will prove to be the most daunting, anxiety-inducing experience many of them have yet had. The fact that most colleges today are more selective than they were a decade ago has filled the college-admissions process with a sense of risk and scarcity—and that in turn has driven a steady increase in the number of schools to which seniors typically apply. Ever rising prices mean that a college education can be as expensive as a starter home. But instead of bricks and mortar one is buying something that is intangible and yet, seemingly at least, life-determining: among some parents there's a strong belief that failure to attend a name-brand school will cut their children off from a bright future. So students are under great pressure to find—and get into—the "right" schools. With the average public school college counselor laboring under a workload of about 500 students, consumers of higher education must rely on word of mouth, on their impressions from college visits, on name recognition—and on some of the hundred or more college guides and rankings that are published each year, from the encyclopedic Fiske Guide to Colleges to the Princeton Review's The Best 351 Colleges.
The most widely read of these is U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges," a regular issue of the magazine that was first published in 1983 and today reaches an audience of nearly 11 million people. U.S. News pioneered and largely legitimated the idea of "objective" comparative measures of a school's quality—an idea that has come to permeate the higher-education culture. Colleges pay attention to rankings because a higher ranking one year can bring a flood of new applicants the next, whereas a lower ranking can cause a falloff. Prospective students and their parents pay attention because U.S. News-style rank seems a fair way to gauge whether a school would give them their money's worth. As Steve Goodman, a private education consultant based in Washington, D.C., told me recently, "They say, 'I'm willing to take a second mortgage out for a school I've heard about that I presume is of good quality, but not for one that I've never heard of that may or may not offer a quality education.'"
For education analysts, teachers, and a handful of outspoken university presidents, however, the growing influence of college rankings has for years been a source of deep concern. They believe that rankings not only have distorted the admissions process but are symptomatic of a broader corruption of American universities: administrators, they say, have reshaped their institutions to pursue goals that may not aid—in fact, may actively subvert—the purpose of higher education. Not until the 1990s, when college guides became a growth industry, did it really dawn on critics that college rankings were also providing kids and their parents with something desirable: reliable hard data that could be used to compare a wide array of schools and pick one out of the clutter. To reduce the relevance of one sort of ranking the critics would have to provide another: an alternative measure of educational quality based on a new standard to which institutions could aspire. They would, in other words, have to find a different way to answer the basic question faced by so many high school seniors and their families each year: What makes a college good?
Changes in the U.S. News ranking system since its origin twenty years ago suggest how powerful the demand for hard data about colleges has become. The first U.S. News ranking divided schools into broad categories and asked university presidents to rate the best schools within their peer group. That is, it was basically a popularity contest—or, as the magazine called it, a "reputational survey." Most colleges ignored the results, but the issue was snatched up from newsstands, and U.S. News published the rankings again in 1985 and 1987. The following year the magazine decided to launch them as an annual feature, bundled with stories about higher education and titled "America's Best Colleges." To make the rankings less subjective, U.S. News also began to gather a wide variety of figures. For the past fifteen years the areas in which colleges are measured have remained roughly constant: along with peer assessment they include retention, which counts both a college's graduation rate and the percentage of freshmen who return the following year; faculty resources, including such statistics as student-faculty ratio and average faculty salaries; student selectivity, which factors in a school's acceptance rate along with the SAT or ACT scores and high school class ranks of the students who enroll; an institution's per-student spending; and the alumni-giving rate. Another measure, called graduation-rate performance (which compares a school's expected and actual graduation rates), was added in 1996.
All told, "America's Best Colleges" offers a wealth of factual, specific, and objective information about more than 1,400 colleges and universities—a nice departure from the bland, cheery, and vaguely propagandistic brochures and videos that most of those institutions send out through the mail. Until U.S. News began publishing the rankings, in fact, many schools didn't collect this kind of information systematically; and even if they did, few were willing to make it public. By creating an incentive for institutions to provide reliable data about graduation rates, selectivity, and the like, U.S. News has helped to demystify the admissions process and to create a common vocabulary for parents, applicants, college counselors, and universities themselves. (Indeed, it's a testament to U.S. News's influence that the Department of Education now actually mandates that schools report to the federal government much of the data that the magazine requires for its rankings.) Rankings can help many high school seniors gauge their chances with certain schools, and may even lead them to discover institutions that they or their overworked guidance counselors had never heard of. Brian Kelly, the magazine's executive editor, says that U.S. News "levels the playing field for a kid in El Paso, who's heard of Rice but never knew that his SAT scores were good enough to get into Amherst." Of all the college-guide publishers, U.S. News is arguably the one that collects data the most rigorously and is most open about how it arrives at its final numbers.
But for most critics of rankings, the integrity of the data from U.S. News and its imitators is not the issue. What they object to is how colleges, along with students and parents, put the data to use. Kelly explains that the rankings are merely a "way for people to make a preliminary selection of schools they think might be appropriate for them." However, although the magazine does take care to remind readers that the college experience "cannot be reduced to mere numbers," it also insists that the statistics it provides are "widely accepted indicators of excellence." According to critics, what U.S. News-style data actually measure is something different: an institution's wealth in resources—from smart students to accomplished faculty members to large endowments. The logic is that "lots of resources, plus selective admissions, equals 'excellence' in undergraduate education," as Ernest T. Pascarella, a professor and education researcher at the University of Iowa, wrote in one widely read 2001 critique, published in Change magazine. Rather than talking of America's "Best Colleges," he suggested, college rankings should be called "America's Most Advantaged Colleges."