MORE ON COLLEGE RANKINGS. A recent New York Times article discussed the shadow side of the U.S. News & World Reports annual college rankings: It is in the interest of the colleges to game them by, say, evaluating other colleges negatively or by inflating their own apparent applicant pool so as to allow the college seem more selective:
Indeed, the rankings are so influential, two decades after they were started, that one clause in the contract of Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, promises a $10,000 bonus if he can raise its standing. Frustrated college officials and high school guidance counselors say the magazine is not only reporting on how colleges perform, but is also changing their behavior as they try to devise gambits to scurry into the top ranks.
Take admissions. A college's acceptance rate, or the proportion of applicants it admits, counts towards its rank, and the more selective the college is, the better.
So some colleges try to increase the number of applicants they receive -- and turn down -- by waiving fees and dropping requirements. Some send out applications by e-mail, with most of the student's personal information already filled in. Others send out persistent e-mail appeals to high school sophomores, with breathless subject lines like "Time is running out."
"It's pumping up the numbers, it's making colleges look more selective, and it's contributing to the frenzy," said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College. "What if we become ridiculous and just go out to a shopping mall and hand out applications?"
Then there is that survey that asks college officials to rate other colleges and universities. The survey, which counts for 25 percent of a college's overall ranking, is the most heavily weighted factor.
That has spurred colleges to send glossy promotional brochures and updates on new programs to high-ranking officials at other colleges around survey time in hopes of impressing them. Despite such efforts, college officials say they suspect that some in their ranks deliberately downgrade their competitors to try to drive down their showing.
This is a pretty obvious and predictable outcome of a ranking system which has become influential over time, you might say. True. But the need for college rankings of this sort has an interesting economic story to tell, a story which may explain why not a single university or a college in this country is run as a for-profit enterprise.