Most people realize that the U.S. News and World Reports rankings of America's best colleges are a bit silly. What they tend not to realize is that since a change in rankings has real impact on a college administrator's career, real things happen in higher education in an effort to move up the rankings, and this has real -- and very bad -- consequences. Kevin Carey has one example here, noting that a large proportion of the U.S. News score is based on pure input measures (spending per student, etc.) rather than anything related to educational outcomes:
That tranlsates into incentives that virtually guarantee inefficiency and constantly rising costs. If a university were able to figure out how to reduce its costs by, say, 10 percent, while holding quality constant, and it chose to pass those savings along to its customers in the form of a tuition decrease, its U.S. News rankings would go down. If, on the other hand, it became 10 percent less efficient and passed the cost onto customers in the form a tuition increase (not a hard thing to do if you're a selective college), its ranking would go up.
But nothing's good for magazine sales like a much-discussed list, and so the madness continues.