If College Rankings Cause Stress And Worry, Why Do Families Love Them?

Record high rejections at top-ranked colleges. Single-digit admission rates at Ivy League schools. Straight-A students barred from UCLA. Chart-busting wait lists with anxious applicants jockeying for acceptances that will never come. 

Competition to get into schools highest on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” ratings went into overdrive this year. Why?

Because degrees are one of the most expensive consumer products average Americans buy, families have embraced numeric rankings as a quick way to gauge what they believe is academic quality. But they’ve been misled.

America’s obsession with the “likes” and ratings that created Rotten Tomatoes, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, and Instagram nourishes a business model that feeds off competition. “Best Colleges,” an advertising and marketing powerhouse, manufactures competition to peddle products. Selling pseudoscience as an objective measure of academic quality, it leads worried and confused families to about 100 schools with the nation’s highest academic hurdles and lowest acceptance rates.  

As competition to get into those schools escalated, a cascade effect pushed to ever-higher heights the average test scores and grades needed to qualify, provoking unhealthy stress, competition and over-borrowing. To make their children competitive, parents began hiring armies of tutors and consultants and spending billions of dollars on admissions prep, an industry that barely existed before “Best Colleges” rankings appeared.

Best Colleges reinforces the “myth of the perfect fit,” convincing families that schools ranked most exclusive are “best,” feeding off what one expert described as a “bottomless resource: the love and anxiety of parents.” Rick Singer pushed those emotional buttons to persuade clients to pay him millions of dollars to get their unqualified children into the nation’s “best colleges.” Colleges push similar buttons to convince students to attend the “best” schools that accept them, regardless of cost.

“Best Colleges” created “a perverse incentive for schools to adopt or maintain policies that perpetuate social and economic inequalities,” six U.S. Senators, including Kamala D. Harris, asserted publicly few years ago. The Senators urged U.S. News to undertake a comprehensive “update of its rankings” — something that never came.  

Though its formula has changed over the years, “Best Colleges” continues to measure one constant: institutional wealth. Top-ranked colleges are the richest, with the largest endowments and financial assets.  It’s no coincidence that the rise of “Best Colleges” coincided with soaring tuition and student debt. College costs have increased nearly 1,000 percent since 1980: From $2,500 to the current $26,820 at public schools, and from $5,000 to $54,880 at privates.

Families borrowed more than they could afford to repay for what they believed were the “best” schools. The proceeds from those loans fueled campus building booms, luxury student housing and million-dollar salaries for presidents and celebrity faculty. Students left college with promissory notes and sometimes no degree.

The College Board’s SAT tests and Advanced Placement course grades have played a crucial role in determining a school’s place on the “Best Colleges” rankings. Hypercompetition to get into the best ranked colleges caused acceptance rates to plummet and average test scores and grades needed for admission to soar. More students competing for the same number of places spawned the hysteria and anxiety families now associate with applying to college.

Choosing a college became “a high-stakes economic and social transaction,” the New York Times observed as far back as 1997, about the same time Stanford’s President Gerhard Casper attacked “Best Colleges” specious formulas, faulty logic, absurd, subjective categories and misleading conclusions. Casper challenged U.S. News “to lead the way away from football-ranking mentality and toward helping to inform, rather than mislead, your readers.”

Instead, “Best Colleges” permanently altered the landscape of higher education, spawning dozens of copycats and every conceivable list from “Top Party Schools” to “Best College Dorms” and “Best College Water Parks.” Rankings today are chaotic, bewildering, confusing and oppressive. The sheer numbers can paralyze families fearful of making wrong choices.

How can families break free from the rankings game?

Ignore numeric assessments like “Best Colleges” and find the right financial fit first. Look for measures that assess affordability, family borrowing, career development services, post-graduate earnings, academic rigor, small class sizes and opportunities to participate in research and public service. The best colleges prioritize teaching and mentoring and give students a solid foundation in critical thinking,

Ranking colleges numerically made no sense three decades ago, and it still makes no sense, Casper, now president emeritus of Stanford, said recently. “Universities don’t change one year to another the way U.S. News captures it. It’s superficial. If there’s change, that creates curiosity and news. The only reason it makes sense is because it adds to the sales of the book.”