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More Top-Tier Colleges in Rankings Doesn't Mean Better Quality

Families wrestle over the question of just how much to rely on national rankings when choosing a college.

Researchers at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research caution that prestige may not equal quality. With more schools being labeled top-tier, students should keep the rankings in perspective and focus more on the best fit, write AEI's Fredrick Hess and Taryn Hochlietner in their recent article, College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige?

The Profiles of American Colleges published by Barron Educational Services listed 87 schools as "most competitive" in 2011, while just 44 made that designation in its 1991 edition.

The overall number of schools in Barron's list has not increased, just the percentage that are considered elite.

Are schools really getting better? Not necessarily, the AEI researchers contend.

Too often, schools just look more selective because they have pulled in a larger volume of applications, thanks to increased marketing. With more students using the Common Application, it's easier to send off multiple applications. The larger pool of candidates for the same number of spots in a freshman class allows more colleges to look more competitive, the AEI article notes.

More students are enrolling in college, but they aren't particularly performing better and, therefore, raising overall quality. Test scores have been stagnant, while grade point averages have increased. (Nationwide, the average high school GPA was 2.68 in 1990 and 3.0 in 2009.)

So, the AEI researchers note that grade inflation has bumped more colleges into top-tier status they may not deserve.

The key takeaways: Being in the top category on a national ranking may not mean that the school offers the best teaching or quality. So many schools are highly ranked that students should consider guides just one factor in the application process. The emphasis on rankings gives colleges the wrong incentive to focus on recruiting over completion and academic quality. So families shouldn't get roped into paying top dollar for brand-name colleges, when more affordable choices might be just as worthy.

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