The big news in the higher-ed world today is the publication of the 2018 U.S. News & World-Report college rankings, which, despite the many misgivings of anyone who knows anything about academia, remains the most widely followed consumer guide to higher education in America.
The University of Virginia, the commonwealth’s flagship institution, fell a notch to 25th place. Virginia Commonwealth University descended seven steps on the ladder, but Virginia Tech rose five and George Mason University ascended three.
Now, having legitimized the U.S News list by duly reporting the Virginia public college rankings, permit me to denounce it. While the online publication’s profiles of individual institutions contain much useful information, the obsession with rankings has a baleful effect on higher education generally.
Here’s the problem: With the exception of a few for-profit trade schools, higher-ed is a not-profit industry. Colleges and universities do not have shareholders. Therefore, they are not profit maximizing organizations. To people who think that “profit” is a dirty word, associated with exploitation and rapaciousness, the nonprofit status is a good thing. But it’s not as if colleges and universities, both public and private, have used their nonprofit status to hold down tuition & fees. Higher education has been one of the most inflationary sectors of the entire U.S. economy, and higher tuition & fees have been paid largely by the expedient of saddling students with unconscionable levels of debt.
It’s not as if the titans of higher-ed, mindful of their nonprofit status, restrain their appetites for more revenue. They just allocate the money differently. Instead of maximizing profits and returns to shareholders, they maximize the prestige of the institutions with which they are associated and maximize their bureaucratic fiefdoms within those institutions. No matter how much money they bring in, university administrators can always find ways to spend more.
The competition for prestige is a never-ending endeavor, and lists like U.S. News‘ feed the frenzy. No university board of visitors is ever content doing what it has always been doing. Every institution must conceive grand plans to erect new buildings, recruit prestigious faculty, lure smarter, more accomplished students, amass ever larger endowments, and create new, cutting-edge programs. There is never enough money to do all these things — especially when peer institutions are all competing to stand out by the same means. To stand still is to fall behind. To run is to stay in place. Only by sprinting ahead can an institution gain in prestige.
So, by U.S. News standards, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, despite all their frenetic activity to build their institutions, fell behind this year. They are deemed less prestigious than they were last year. While the publication does compile separate lists for “best value” and “A-plus schools for B students,” these are given far less prominence, and they get far less media attention. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch article, for example, focuses mainly upon the top-line rankings, never mentioning the more arcane rankings.)
In their lust for status and prestige, colleges and universities plow resources into programs and amenities that provide a diminishing return from an educational perspective. And the cost of education becomes out of reach for an ever-growing share of the population.
Update: Politico argues that the U.S. News ranking reinforce the tendency of colleges to vie for the same top applicants, who overlap to a significant degree with the wealthiest applicants.
For instance, Southern Methodist University in Dallas conducted a billion-dollar fundraising drive devoted to many of the areas ranked by U.S. News, including spending more on faculty and recruiting students with higher SAT scores — and jumped in the rankings. Meanwhile, Georgia State University, which has become a national model for graduating more low- and moderate-income students, dropped 30 spots.
The Politico article provides a database comparing the percentage of students accepted from the Top 1% and the Bottom 60%. Thus, we can see, for example, that the percentage of the Top 1% rose slightly at the College of William & Mary between 2000 and 2011, while the percentage of the bottom 60% declined commensurately.
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