College Rankings and College Admissions: Coming Out on Top

It’s that time of the year again when US News and World Report releases its annual rankings for national colleges and universities.  The 2014 rankings, released on September 10th, illustrate the usual shuffle among the Ivy League and Ivy League-ish institutions at the top: Princeton broke away from Harvard to claim the lead in the university rankings while Williams College remains unscathed atop the liberal arts college rankings.  Each year, prospective students, undergraduates, and alumni alike review the rankings and even compare them to the post-graduation PayScale college rankings, as the New York Times has done this year.  Rather than entering the debate about whether the metrics should be changed, like Obama has, in this article I will investigate the current metrics of college rankings and contextualize their significance for college admissions.

Undergraduate Academic Reputation

A whopping 22.5% of the rankings are based on the subjective opinions of both high school counselors and administrators at peer institutions.  The weight of this metric largely reflects the enormous marketing budgets colleges now need to stay competitive in the rankings.  According to a 2011 Noel-Levitz poll, private universities spent a median of $2,185 marketing dollars per new student.  This expense is an indicator that top colleges don’t just have to be good; they have to make sure everyone knows it.  This is easier for Ivy League schools who have garnered impervious auras that remain intact no matter the cheating scandals or grade inflation that may occur there; whereas “ranking climbers” like Washington University in St. Louis have used exorbitant fundraising campaigns in years past to attain similar stature. 

Student Selectivity for Entering Freshman Class

In a similar vein, student selectivity comprises 12.5% of college rankings.  A big piece of this tri-part metric is the total number of students accepted at a given institution: the fewer, the better. This means that when you receive mailers from prestigious institutions that say, “We Want You,” they actually just mean they want you to apply.  Moreover, they especially want you to apply if you would certainly attend if admitted, as it enables them to accept even fewer students.  This is the rationale for offering application options like Early Decision, a binding contract that ensures that admission translates into matriculation.  

The remaining two pieces of the Student Selectivity puzzle are the percentage of attending freshmen whose GPA was in the top 10% in high school, and the average SAT and ACT math and critical reading scores (though not writing scores, notably) of incoming students.

Graduation and Retention Rate

The US News & World Report places a premium on freshmen retention and graduation rates this year, using these numbers to influence 22.5% of an institution’s ranking.  Indeed, undergraduates sticking around for the full four (and up to six) years is a decent indicator of student satisfaction and success in school.  There are numerous factors that can influence these statistics.  Motivated and capable students help; so do great professors and inspiring courses.  However, perhaps the most influential factor that affects student satisfaction and retention is again money.  It’s no secret that colleges and universities with the biggest endowments have the best student support services, the most state-of-the-art facilities, and the most exciting extracurricular opportunities.

Graduation Rate Performance

Worth 7.5% of a college’s ranking, Graduation Rate Performance is based on the difference between the actual graduation rate and expected graduation rate.  This metric happens to be the only one that is controlled for spending, essentially rewarding colleges whose policies help students of underprivileged backgrounds graduate at higher rates than expected.

Faculty Resources and Financial Resources

At a combined 30%, the Faculty Resources and Student Resources categories play a significant role in college rankings.  Again, these two categories boil down to money: professor wages, professor credentials, number of professors on staff, number of full-time faculty, number of small class sizes, and quantified financial resources for students are all rewarded tremendously.

Alumni Giving

Here is where it gets tricky.  Affecting only 5%, Alumni Giving seems like it plays a small role in affecting college rankings.  However, this metric does not consider the amount of money alumni donors give to the university; rather it only considers the percentage of alumni who donate.  Measuring alumni giving in this way is meant to reflect the level of student satisfaction (students who valued their college experience are much more likely to give money), but it may distract from the other very important role that these donations play in shaping an institution’s success.

The Missing Category

Though endowment size is not a category used by US News and World Report, the list of universities and colleges by size of endowment—adjusted for the number of undergraduates at each institution—produces rankings that are nearly identical.  It doesn’t take a Princeton graduate to figure out that over 75% of college rankings (academic reputation, graduation and retention rate, faculty resources, and financial resources) are arguably dependent on amassed alumni giving and strategic use of these funds by the institutions that receive them.

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In fact, the only metric that is adjusted for spending—Graduation Rate Performance—also happens to be one of the least consequential factors in college rankings.  What results is a ranking system based less on university and colleges’ capacity to educate and propel intellectual discovery and professional success and more on their ability to run a successful business.  In other words, top colleges are like top professional baseball teams: they have the most money, the most devoted fans, and the most talented, well-groomed participants.  The only difference is that baseball teams are ultimately judged by how they play; top colleges win by simply looking good on paper.

 

How College Rankings Impact College Admissions

In recent years, many have concluded that the college admissions process has become opaque, that every application is a roll of the dice.  Yes, people will concede, there are the students who are obvious shoe-ins, the ones who overcome insurmountable obstacles, create their own non-profits or life-saving inventions while acing every academic challenge in their paths.  But parents and students alike are mystified and downright baffled by the abstract expressions that have become the new lexicon of college admissions—terms like “well-rounded,” “diversity of experience,” and “holistic evaluation.”

In truth, you don’t need a college counselor to explain what counts for college admissions; you can figure it out on your own using the metrics of US News & World Report College Rankings.  Colleges clearly want high SAT scores, GPAs in the top 10%, students who will attend their school if admitted (Early Decision applicants), and students who will have no problem graduating (those who breeze through AP classes).  More investigation reveals that legacy students (children of alumni) are likely to be favored; there’s plenty of research to back this up.  Simple logic dictates that legacy students whose parents make significant annual donations are admitted at even higher rates. 

An especially keen observer, however, might realize that students who have the sought-after academic credentials turn out to most often come from a social class who can afford all of the resources (the best private schools, SAT tutors, private college counselors, etc.) to excel in the first place.  Students who come from the bottom 50% of economic backgrounds, by contrast, constitute 14% of the student body at competitive colleges.  This is no coincidence: it’s simply easier for colleges—that is, more financially viable—to admit students who have both the resources to excel in college and can easily foot the tuition bill (and then donate to the school thereafter).  In other words, like the colleges they attend, those who have money and use it wisely have and will continue to remain on top.