The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College rankings have fueled an arms race that has pushed higher education astray

Colleges focus on rising in the rankings at the expense of innovation and affordability.

The Ohio University campus in Athens in 2019. (iStock) (iStock)

Last month, a consortium of education experts launched a petition demanding that U.S. News & World Report stop using high-stakes admissions test scores to calculate college rankings. The appeal is the latest skirmish in a decades-long battle between academia and America’s oldest commercial ranking company for control of higher education.

U.S. News published the first rankings in 1983, perfectly timed to exploit a political and cultural shift that glorified markets and encouraged materialism, all while inflaming economic anxiety. Although college presidents initially opposed the magazine’s methodology, they eventually realized that rankings could boost status and market share. Fearing the loss of revenue and prestige that came with a fall in rank, nearly all colleges learned to play the rankings game, launching an academic arms race that destabilized higher education, fueled toxic competition among universities and inflated the cost of degrees 1,000 percent since 1980.

There was a time when Americans generally believed that young people were entitled to affordable, quality higher education. GI Bill tuition subsidies sent an entire generation of mostly White male veterans to college after World War II. In the next two decades, lawmakers opened the college gates to women and students of color. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Higher Education Act and the 1972 Title IX Education Amendments Act all pushed the number of college applicants to record highs.

Then came President Ronald Reagan. In dismantling Great Society programs that promoted social and racial equality, his administration also cut need-based financial aid. This began four decades of federal and state lawmakers reducing tuition subsidies and cutting funding to universities. Schools, in turn, raised tuition to make up for lost revenue, shifting costs to students and families.

Very quickly, a degree became one of the most expensive consumer products an average American bought over a lifetime. But what were they buying?

U.S. News provided an answer. The rising cost of college inspired the magazine to publish the first rankings in 1983, aimed directly at consumers, based on a marketing survey that asked college presidents to rate the nation’s top schools.

“Most of the people who were filling out those surveys had no idea what they were talking about,” said Richard Freeland, former Massachusetts education commissioner and president emeritus of Northeastern University. While Freeland filled out the surveys, he acknowledged that the presidents were just “replicating conventional wisdom.”

When they first appeared, rankings mostly impressed upper-class parents, who started hiring tutors and consultants to help their children get into the highest-rated colleges. But with the advent of the Internet — the rankings first appeared online in 1993 — millions of ordinary families became able to search “Best Colleges” from personal computers. This new technology also made it easy for students to apply to dozens of schools with the click of a keyboard, escalating competition between universities to attract students.

Greater accessibility combined with skyrocketing tuition made rankings more important as families sought ways to calculate returns on their investment. By 1997, the New York Times observed that choosing a college had become “a high-stakes economic and social transaction.” The release of “Best Colleges” each fall produced front-page news, millions of digital page views and “howls of anger … in the offices of colleges and university administrators,” said Alvin Sanoff, a U.S. News editor.

Educators rebelled. They called the “Best Colleges” rankings, among other pejoratives, “pernicious,” “misleading” and “deeply flawed.” Their core objection was that the rankings prioritized a “list of criteria that mirrors the superficial characteristics of elite colleges and universities,” instead of measuring actual academic quality, value or learning. Academics signed petitions, boycotted, wrote op-eds. They launched competing rankings to measure values they held dear, like “Colleges That Change Lives.”

None of these moves, however, had much impact on students and parents. As tuition and competition increased, families looked to rankings to help identify premium, high-status brands. For the top 100 schools, admission hurdles and standards climbed higher. Acceptance rates plummeted. Parents spent, collectively, millions of dollars for tutors and consultants to provide every possible admission advantage for their children.

The obsessive sorting deepened the chasm between the haves and have-nots, between elite colleges and the rest. Universities faced a choice: Change or die.

Myriad presidents tried to reverse-engineer the rankings, spending millions of dollars to enhance the measures of quality that could best preserve or improve their standing.

Boosting a college’s rank required huge infusions of cash, hundreds of millions of dollars directed to areas that promoted upward movement in key variables. Researchers also found another crucial factor: strong leaders committed to winning a marathon. One of those presidents, Steven Sample, arrived in 1991 at the University of Southern California. Over the next two decades, Sample went on a $100 million spending spree, significantly improving financial resources and faculty salaries, both crucial to “Best Colleges” ratings. To increase student selectivity, USC poured millions into merit scholarships, discounting tuition for high-achieving applicants, moving up 29 spots, eventually reaching No. 24 this year.

USC’s accomplishment was nowhere near as striking as that of Northeastern, whose rise Boston Business Journal called “one of the most dramatic since U.S. News began ranking schools.”

In 1996, Freeland inherited a struggling commuter school serving local students with little residential housing while being located near a dozen better-funded colleges and universities. At the time, rankings were redefining educational quality, but they gave no credit to colleges like Northeastern for educating needy students from under-resourced urban high schools.

Freeland knew the rankings provided “the only avenue” to compete with more prestigious, better funded schools. He spent a decade “disaggregating the formula” — forming an institutional research staff, appointing higher education’s first marketing executive and assigning a vice president to decode the “Best Colleges” blueprint. Among other strategies, enrolling more affluent, high-achieving suburban students improved the university’s graduation and retention rates. This approach provided two “Best Colleges” boosts at once. “You got independent value on the rankings for improving the quality of your students. You got a second bump because those students also tended to bump up the graduation rate. We got pretty sophisticated about this.”

Freeland’s team used algorithms to tell enrollment managers which sorts of students to accept and how much to discount tuition to convince them to enroll. “By the time we got into this, we could pretty much say if we move the needle this much on this metric, this is how it will affect our overall ranking.” That knowledge helped Northeastern jump from No. 162 into the top 100 two weeks after Freeland retired in 2006. Applications doubled. Average test scores rose more than 200 points. Today, Northeastern ranks No. 49.

In the 2000s, President George W. Bush and his allies in Congress made it easier for college presidents to pursue similar strategies. Changes to student-lending regulations removed caps on how much families could borrow for college, enabling universities to boost tuition and get an infusion of money. Administrators put these newfound funds toward a never-ending arms race that many will probably lose. “The system operates like a casino, and the top-tier schools with billion-dollar endowments will always win,” said Jack Maguire, whose enrollment management strategies in the 1970s helped transform Boston College from insolvency to one of the nation’s wealthiest universities.

U.S. News has defended its rankings for decades. “We have evaluated 1,400 colleges and universities for the benefit of students and their families, who rightly want to know what they will get out of a college degree,” editor Brian Kelly wrote in 2018 to six U.S. senators questioning the rankings formulas. “With tuition and fees at public four-year universities tripling over 20 years and student loans costing American families $1.5 trillion collectively,” the publication saw “measuring academic excellence and rewarding schools that enroll, retain and graduate their students, regardless of economic status,” as “necessary.”

Whatever the motives, the rankings have had a profound impact on higher education. Institutions lost the ability to innovate, sapping the academy of its diversity. The focus on boosting schools’ rankings also came at the expense of finding ways to offer high-value, affordable degrees.

The result has been ever-increasing tuition, piles of student debt and colleges and universities without massive endowments — or that try to tread a different path — struggling to survive. It has also left academia with an open question: Has all the spending increased educational quality, or simply created a more expensive, one-size-fits-all college experience, one that perverts what academia ought to be?