Beware College Rankings
Grade inflation and multiple applications can make schools look deceptively good.


Frederick M. Hess

This spring, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors will check their mailboxes hoping for fat envelopes from their dream colleges. Choosing the right school may be the biggest decision of a young person’s life, so to help ensure that their tuition money is well spent, these wide-eyed students and their protective parents turn to college guides. Unfortunately, because of inflation in college rankings, these guides may encourage families to pay top dollar for second-rate products.

Annually, Barron’s Educational Series publishes the authoritative, encyclopedic, 1,600-page Profiles of American Colleges. Barron’s ranks schools as “most competitive,” “highly competitive,” “very competitive,” “competitive,” “less competitive,” and “noncompetitive.”

For years, these distinctions have fueled expectations and activity among students, parents, and guidance counselors. For the most ambitious high-school seniors, the difference between enrolling in a “most competitive” and a “highly competitive” school can be a source of great concern. For the institutions, higher rankings translate into prestige and the willingness of star-struck admittees to fork over thousands of extra tuition dollars.

Recently, according to Barron’s, a raft of schools jumped into the upper echelons of academia, alongside the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales. In the 2009 edition, 82 schools were ranked “most competitive.” Ten years ago, just 54 were. Institutions now listed among the elite of the elite include the College of New Jersey, Occidental College, and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

And even as dozens of colleges left the “highly competitive” category for the top tier, the number of “highly competitive” colleges has increased from 92 to 109. It now includes institutions like Gustavus Adolphus College and Kalamazoo College alongside UC-Berkeley.

Barron’s didn’t relax its standards per se; the criteria have remained constant. Top-tier colleges take students who ranked in the top 20 percent of their high-school classes, earned GPAs of A to B+, and received SAT scores in reading and math of 655 to 800. These schools admit fewer than a third of applicants.

So what explains the change? Some of the schools with higher rankings may truly have improved, but the most significant factor is that two of the Barron’s criteria — high-school grades and percentage of applicants accepted — don’t mean what they did a decade ago. Grade inflation, and students’ applying to more schools than they used to, have juiced the numbers to make students look more qualified and schools more selective.

Grade inflation, dubbed “high schools’ skeleton in the closet” by Lehigh University education professor Perry Zirkel, has been a creeping phenomenon for two decades. A 2004 College Board study reported that the fraction of SAT takers claiming an A average had risen from 13 percent to 18 percent over the past decade, a time during which SAT scores declined slightly. The mean GPA of high-school graduates increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Education; meanwhile, twelfth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined between 1992 and 2007.

Also, whereas college-bound students used to limit applications to a few top choices, it is not unusual for students today to apply to many more. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has reported that the percentage of high-school seniors who applied to four or more colleges increased by more than a quarter from 1996 to 2006 and now stands at over 60 percent. The proportion of students who submitted only one application declined by a quarter in that same span and is now around 17 percent. Of course, when students in general submit more applications, colleges in general get to reject more applicants — making schools across the board more “selective” by the Barron’s criteria.

Rankings and labels can play a useful role in helping prospective students and their parents navigate the college-selection process. However, it is clear that that the labels on many schools should be taken with a grain of salt. Faux exclusivity might be good for endowment coffers and parental bragging rights, but it encourages families to pay top-shelf prices for store-brand merchandise.

– Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Thomas Gift is a research assistant.