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.'"