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The Gaming of College Rankings

We came across an article the other day about “gaming” the college rankings. This interesting piece digs deep into the story of Northeastern University. They made a conscious decision in the late 1990s to focus on moving up in the US News and World Report college rankings. And they have gone from 162 in 1996 to 49 in 2013, an unprecedented jump which required big bucks.

Our friends at US News have long been a huge resource for parents, and they continue to have a ton of content and tools for families in the college search process.

Their content is so helpful to families, and we are honored to have been called on to contribute to their articles recently.

The piece about Northeastern illustrates how their rankings can drive a college’s focus and investments.

As colleges struggle amid competition for students and state cutbacks, improved rankings is a strong way to get your name out there and create demand for your school. Being higher in the rankings leads to stronger applicants, more visibility, and more alumni donations.

A cycle is created.

To rise in the rankings, colleges need to spend money. To spend money, they need to increase tuition. “NU tuition alone in 1989 was $9,500; today it’s $42,534.” To justify tuition increases, they need to rise in the rankings.

Each college ranking uses different methodology to determine their list. Let’s consider some of the methodology used in the US New report you may not be aware of.

In general, the US News report considers “graduation and retention rates, admissions data (acceptance rate, average SAT score), academics (class size, number of full-time faculty), and reputation (peer reviews).

Some specifics…

To reduce class size, colleges can add faculty or cap the number of students per class. US News would like to see less than 20. NU capped theirs at 19.

The acceptance rate is an important factor. If a college can increase their number of applications, then they will have to turn away more students. More demand for available spots lowers a college’s acceptance rate percentage.

NU began accepting the Common App making it easier for students to apply. They also began spending more on recruiting with lots of overseas travel and new facilities and student perks.

Attracting stronger students will raise test scores–a factor in the rankings. Some colleges moved more money into merit-based scholarships with the intention of getting the attention of the better academically prepared.

In 2009, NU stopped requiring SAT scores from international students. International students tend to score lower on our standardized tests. They could increase the number of applicants without affecting the average test score. (International students also often pay the full price of admission…an added bonus.)

Students admitted in the spring semester are not counted into the US News rankings. NU developed a program where students with lower GPAs and test scores can spend their first semester abroad. When those students technically begin in the spring after their study abroad, their stats are not factored in by US News.

Students living on campus are more likely to remain and graduate. New dormitories were built. Graduation and retention rates improved.

A final very important factor to US News is peer assessment. College presidents, provosts, and deans of admission rank their impressions of other colleges. NU decided that improving this factor required lots of one-on-one contact between representatives.

The article also details how some other colleges tried to “cheat their way to the top” by paying students to retake their SAT, giving poor peer reports of other schools, or just blatantly misrepresenting or inflating their statistics.

Now, don’t get us wrong.

Many of these improvements made by NU are good things–smaller class sizes, improved facilities, more diversity, creative programs.

However, money is the key to making these improvements, and the battle to be seen in college rankings contributes to the rising costs we all face when sending kids to college.

US News created their rankings to bring some objectivity to a family’s college choice, and it remains a valuable source for information gathering. Families need to recognize that colleges can be driven by the numbers game and try to throw money at a solution.

Help families do their homework and enter the process with their own list of criteria. As an informed consumer, they can find a great social, academic, and financial fit.

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