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College rankings or junk science?

By Robert Kuttner

IT’S APPROACHING that season when students and their parents anxiously await college admissions decisions. But increasingly, an equally feverish process is infecting the other side of the transaction and distorting the process of who gets financial aid.

Colleges these days engage in an ever more frantic competition for ”rankings,” driven almost entirely by the annual U.S. News & World Report issue on ”America’s Best Colleges.” U.S. News is so dominant that when a dean boasts that his school is ranked in the top 10, or a president’s bonus is based on whether his college makes it into the top 50, they invariably refer to U.S. News.

Massive efforts by admission departments, deans, and college presidents are devoted to gaming the U.S. News ranking system, published every August. This includes everything from manipulating who is considered a part-time student (which raises the reported performance of full-time students) to giving students temporary research jobs in order to raise the placement score reported to U.S. News. But the easiest single way to raise rankings is by enrolling students with ever higher SAT scores.

If the average score of your entering freshman class increases, the U.S. News ranking will probably improve, too. And if your ranking goes up, the presumed prestige of the college will follow. More kids will apply, more applicants will choose your college rather than brand X, and, best of all, more families will pay sticker price….

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