NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige?

May 31, 2012

College ranking guides serve as bibles for college applicants and their families.  The schools they proclaim as most competitive or elite receive a flood of applications, despite their often-hefty price tags.  However, the ranks of the top-tier schools are growing without any evidence that these schools' instructional quality is increasing, say Frederick Hess and Taryn Hochleitner of the American Enterprise Institute.

This evidence of college prestige inflation can be seen in comparisons over time of Barron's Profiles of American Colleges.

  • The system categorizes schools into seven different classifications: "most competitive," "highly competitive," "very competitive," "competitive," "less competitive," "noncompetitive," and "special" (those with specialized programs of study).
  • These classifications are based on four factors: high school class rank, high school grades and standardized test scores of admitted freshmen, as well as the institution's selectivity rate (percentage of applicants who are admitted).
  • The number of schools in the most competitive category nearly doubled between 1991 and 2011 (from 44 to 87).
  • Five schools even managed to jump two levels of classification during that period, and the University of Southern California jumped three (from competitive to most competitive).
  • The "highly competitive" and "very competitive" categories have also grown, 313 in 1991 to 378 in 2011.
  • Meanwhile, the "less competitive" and "noncompetitive" classification witnessed huge declines from 467 in 1991 to 275 in 2011.
  • In total, the top three classifications contained 24 percent of schools in 1991, and this grew to 27 percent in 2001 and 31 percent in 2011.

This prestige inflation is due to gradual inflation of the factors that Barron's uses to classify schools.

  • Grade Inflation: Since the early 1990s, high school grade point averages nationwide have steadily risen, from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 3.0 in 2009.
  • Application Inflation: Twenty years ago, only 9 percent of college freshmen had submitted seven or more applications for admission -- a number that nearly tripled to 25 percent in 2010.
  • Conversely, the percentage of students submitting only one application steadily fell from 1967 to 2006, from 43 percent to 18 percent.

Source: Frederick Hess and Taryn Hochleitner, "College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige?" American Enterprise Institute, May 24, 2012.

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