By David Kirp / The Nation
A few years back, the “Varsity Blues” scandal made front-page news. Rich parents, desperate to ensure that their offspring were accepted by an elite university, paid huge sums of money to an entrepreneur who promised “side door” admissions. Over the course of nearly a decade, athletic records were faked, bribes were paid to university staffers, and hired experts took the SAT instead of the students. To the public, the perp-walk treatment received by these parents and those who abetted them was a justified comeuppance for those who cheated the system.
But did the prosecution of these cheaters really solve the problem? Hardly. The titillating story about entitled parents, far from being an isolated scandal, was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg: It illustrated how the college admissions system in the United States is systemically broken. With places in top-rung schools almost as rare as the Hope Diamond, affluent parents scramble for every advantage. But universities made this system what it is today: They are these parents’ eager enablers, competing fiercely for the prestige and money that comes with success in the rankings game.
In Breaking Ranks, Colin Diver, a former president of Reed College, details how the rankings industry—most notoriously, U.S. News & World Report—powers this unvirtuous cycle. If you are buying a car or a refrigerator, a Consumer Reports–style rankings system works just fine. But, as Diver points out, there is no right answer when it comes to choosing a college—for all the fancy formulas the rankings companies trot out, they offer faux science. When the powerhouses, like U.S. News and its ilk, weigh competing values—selectivity versus affordability, reputation versus higher-than-predicted graduation rates—they are making an ideological judgment about what really matters in a college education. (The Washington Monthly’s formula emphasizes a college’s contribution to the public good, focusing on social mobility, research, and promoting public service. It’s a fine, if imperfectly executed, idea, but there is scant evidence that the magazine has much of an impact on students’ choices.) Thus, it’s apparent from the results that what counts most in these calculations is the wealth of the institution and, indirectly, the wealth of its students. Were it otherwise, would all of the top 20 universities be wealthy private schools?
The rankings game is a high-stakes affair. Where an institution stands in the U.S. News pecking order affects the number and credentials of its applicants, whose decisions are heavily influenced by a school’s prestige; the generosity of its donors, who like to give to the winners; the bragging rights of its trustees; and its appeal to the professoriate. It’s a perpetual cycle: A college that admits more well-credentialed students, has a growing endowment, and boasts a more highly regarded faculty receives a higher ranking, which in turn generates greater selectivity, bigger donations, happier trustees, and more-pedigreed professors. Because rankings are a zero-sum game, an institution that doesn’t do as well slips in the charts, and all hell breaks loose on the campus.
Universities invest gobs of time, energy, and money in gaming the system. Diver recounts the story of Temple University’s business school, which for years submitted phony admissions data for its online MBA program. Relying on that information, U.S. News & World Report named that program the best in the country; enrollment doubled, and donors opened their checkbooks. Once the truth came out, Temple plummeted to No. 100, students sued the school for having defrauded them, and the dean who masterminded the scheme was convicted of wire fraud.
Like the “Varsity Blues” scandal, the Temple debacle became national news. For its part, U.S. News dismissed the school as a rotten apple in an otherwise reliable system. The magazine “takes cases of misreporting seriously,” said Robert Morse, who runs its rankings operation, and errors are “rare.”
But how does Morse know? The magazine takes colleges at their word, and for universities clawing their way up the rankings ladder, there is a powerful temptation to cheat. Regional colleges like Austin-Peay State and Dakota Wesleyan do it, and so do nationally renowned institutions: Claremont-McKenna College, Emory University, and the Naval Academy submitted phony data about everything from graduation rates and research grants to applicants’ grades and GRE scores, diversity and student aid. The rankings industry has every reason to look the other way: It depends on colleges and universities to supply the necessary information it requires and doesn’t want to rock the boat.
It isn’t necessary, however, to engage in larceny to get ahead. As I noted in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, many institutions use insidious, unethical—and entirely legal—strategies to improve their position. As the former president of Northeastern University put it, “There’s no question that the system invites gaming.”
Since the U.S. News formula favors schools that reject most of their applicants, some universities, in order to look more selective, recruit students who have no chance of admission. Likewise, a school may wait-list its top applicants if it believes they have no intention of enrolling, on the premise that if these students really wanted to attend, they would make their intentions plain. A college’s reputation among administrators at peer institutions affects its rank, so an institution can undermine its competitors by giving them low “prestige” scores. Universities manipulate the faculty-to-student ratio to include scholars who seldom see the inside of a classroom. The percentage of alumni donors can be distorted by striking from the rolls any alum whom the institution hasn’t heard from for a while.
The most troubling consequence of these rankings is not that universities can game them but rather that they only serve to stratify an already highly unequal education system. Because these companies reward colleges whose entering freshmen have high SAT scores and grade-point averages, schools tend to pursue well-off students, mostly Asian and white, who are more likely to do well on those metrics, rather than those who might benefit the most from a good college education. Increasingly, universities lure such prospects by awarding them merit scholarships, while cutting back on financial aid based on student need—Diver dubs this “reverse Robin Hood.” The same holds true for the graduation rate, which U.S. News takes into account (assigning it a laughably precise 17.6 percent of a school’s total score): High school students from well-off families have a better chance of earning a degree than their less advantaged peers. A 2017 Equal Opportunity Project report identified 38 universities, including five in the Ivy League—the schools that populate the top rungs of the U.S. News ladder—that admit more students from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent.
Meanwhile, the deck is stacked against a university like Georgia State, which eschews selectivity and admits any applicant with a B average as well as graduates of the affiliated community college, many of whom barely scraped through high school. As I describe in The College Dropout Scandal, Georgia State works hard to keep these students on track to earn a diploma. Its efforts have paid dividends, as minority, low-income, and first-generation students all graduate at a higher rate than their white classmates. U.S. News ranks Georgia State No. 2 in undergraduate teaching, No. 2 in most innovative schools, No. 11 in top performers on social mobility—and No. 239 in the national rankings.
What, if anything, can be done to level the playing field? In 1983, when U.S. News, a magazine starved for subscribers, decided to rank universities, the institutions could have responded by ignoring the demand for information. They could have crafted a model that emphasized the extent to which students’ ability to write clearly and think critically improved during their college years, since there are tools that do a decent job of measuring those “value-added” factors. This model could also have taken into account the number of minority, first-generation, and low-income students who earn a degree. In short, universities could have prioritized learning and equity, not prestige. Instead, they leaped on the U.S. News bandwagon and started competing like mad. It is much too late to reverse course—as Diver notes, when Reed College refused to submit data to U.S. News, the school was punished with a bottom-of-the-charts ranking.
A fairer rankings system would highlight universities like Georgia State and CUNY, whose mission is to help students from poor families enter the middle class, rather than fixating on institutions like Yale and Princeton, which burnish the prone-to-success credentials of their students. It would give a shout-out to colleges where the teaching is first-rate, the students are engaged in learning, and the alumni describe themselves as living a fulfilling life. But such an approach is unlikely to gain traction in this hyper-competitive society, where the meritocratic myth prevails and prestige is all that matters.