College Rankings Reformed: The Case for a New Order in Higher Education

Liam Julian

Kevin Carey
Education Sector
September 2006

This report blows the whistle on the Ivy League, darling of U.S. News and World Report's annual list of "America's Best Colleges," and shows that Harvard, Yale, and their ilk might be doing a worse job educating students than some supposedly third-tier institutions. Author Kevin Carey begins by dissecting the criteria used in U.S. News rankings and finds that only one indicator (graduation rate performance), representing a mere 5 percent of a college's final score, actually evaluates school quality. The other 95 percent of a university's U.S. News ranking is based on fame, wealth, and exclusivity. Carey continues by pointing out (with the available data) that schools at the fame-wealth-exclusivity hierarchy's pinnacle, while privy to applicants with higher SAT and ACT scores, don't always do a good job raising their students' abilities to a higher level. And when it comes to finding good jobs, a diploma from a top-tier institution might not matter as much as some people think. For example, Florida compiles an annual profile of its public university graduates who live in the state. Out of the state's nine largest public universities, six rank poorly in the U.S. News rankings. But it's from these six that the highest earning graduates hail. "The school ranked highest by U.S. News--the University of Florida--ranks second to last," writes Carey, "in terms of average earnings of graduates. This is not a one-year anomaly; similar numbers were reported for 2003 and 2002." The word is getting out: many of our nation's supposedly flagship institutions aren't as good as we think (Ed Secretary Margaret Spellings told us so). Carey's astute work should encourage parents to think twice before flippantly dashing off $60K checks to a brand-name college. This isn't the first time the fatuousness of the U.S. News rankings has been pointed out, but it adds to a rising tide of discontent (see here and here). Read it here.

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