It's the time of year when lots of high school seniors start thinking about starting college, while their parents gulp at the tuition bills. As often as not, students and parents have navigated the selection process with the aid of popular college guides like US News and World Report or Barron's Profiles of American Colleges. High rankings boost an institution's reputation and attract applicants, encouraging parents and students to pony up extra tuition dollars rather than settle for less prestigious alternatives. What gets lost is higher education's dirty little secret: these rankings mean a lot less than you might think.
What do I have in mind? My talented research assistant Taryn Hochleitner and I recently explored the phenomenon of rankings inflation over the past twenty years. We examined Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, a popular annual college guide that ranks four-year schools in six-tiered hierarchy of competitiveness. We examined Barron's Profiles from 1991 to 2011 and found that more and more colleges have been ranked as elite over time. Indeed, the "most competitive" schools, with their Ivy League-like appeal and price points, account for a growing share of the college landscape.
The number of schools in the top category doubled between 1991 and 2011. In 1991, 44 schools ranked as "most competitive." In 2011, 87 did. The growth is due to a slew of institutions migrating up to the top tier: 17 schools moved up between 1991 and 2001, and 28 more since 2001. The ranks of the "highly" and "very competitive" have also grown steadily since 1991.
Do these findings reflect more schools being ranked? Nope. The total number of schools in the rankings has barely changed, meaning that the distribution of schools has shifted. The top three Barron's tiers used to make up less than a quarter of the colleges in the rankings; they now account for almost a third.
Meanwhile, the number of "less competitive" and "noncompetitive" schools has plunged; the share of schools ranked in these bottom categories declined from 31 to 18 percent between 1991 and 2011. This all means that there are now more very competitive institutions than less competitive ones.
So, what's going on? The thing is, Barron's calculations include four factors: high school class rank, high school grades, standardized test scores, and an institution's selectivity rate. These criteria haven't changed over time, but two of Barron's key components--high school GPA and college selectivity--have been subject to rampant inflation in recent decades. Barron's failure to account for that effect means that its rankings have been inflated in turn.
Take high school GPA. Since 1991, average high school GPAs nationwide have gone up, from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.0 in 2009, while NAEP scores--a more objective measure over time--for 17 year olds haven't improved during that time. This means that today's incoming freshmen look more impressive on paper than their predecessors, although it's doubtful whether or not they are actually achieving real gains in learning in high school.
Similarly, applicants today are applying to more schools than ever, thanks both to a more streamlined, web-enabled application process and to the perception that getting into college is becoming more difficult; more applications yield better odds. Twenty years ago, only 9 percent of college freshmen had submitted seven or more applications for admission. In 2010, that number had nearly tripled to 25 percent.
All this adds up to a simple fact: as a result of high school grade and application inflation, more institutions are now being granted a higher rank in Barron's calculations, despite the fact that neither of those factors has anything to do with the college itself--its institutional quality, its academic rigor, its campus culture, and so on. So while rankings and labels can help prospective students and their parents navigate the college-selection process, savvy consumers ought to view these labels with a lot more skepticism.
If you're interested, you can check out "College rankings inflation: Are you overpaying for prestige?" here.