The true crisis in college admissions isn't overly motivated parents or even analytical rankings of elite schools. It's too little motivation among parents and students combined with insufficient information.
This October, hundreds of thousands of American parents will spend the month nagging their 17- and 18-year old children to finish their college essays and double-/triple-quadruple-check their basic applications. To an outsider, this might look like madness, yet there's method to it. A private four-year university can cost more than $160,000, enough to buy eight Toyota Camrys. In an economy with an uncertain recovery path, college pays off more than ever. All the more reason for parents to assess (and, yes, obsess over) their decision.
If you see trend stories on these families in national newspapers and magazines, you'll read that the parents are too motivated (e.g.: the "helicopter parent") and the information is overly analytical (e.g.: the dreaded US News and World Report rankings). But in a country where seven out of ten 30-year olds don't have a college degree and most students drop out of school, the real problem isn't motivated parents and ranked information. Instead, it is too little motivation and too little information altogether, as Washington Monthly has demonstrated in their wonderful annual college issue.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU HATE COLLEGE RANKINGS?
We are right to worry about rankings and the "prestige racket" at our finest universities. But maybe we shouldn't worry as much as we do.
Of course there are sharp differences between Harvard University and the University of Michigan that rankings can blur. The same student won't necessarily be happy and successful at both places. It probably makes as much sense to rank these schools for the typical student, without knowing his strengths and interests, as it does for a store to rank its shirts for a typical male shopper without knowing his size and complexion.