'News' You Can Lose

This "celebritization" of higher education may have earned U.S. News a handsome profit over the years, but it says little about how well these institutions actually perform their primary charge: educating students.
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Last week, I noticed a large countdown clock adorning the U.S. News & World Report website, ticking off the seconds until release of their 2012 "Best Colleges" edition.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

The artificial suspense and phony precision it projected, as well as the self-importance it radiated, made me flinch. It's disturbing that college rankings like this one are embraced as "news you can use," rather than the marketing infotainment they really are -- higher education's equivalent of People's "Sexiest Man Alive."

In truth, the "Best Colleges" franchise abets in fueling harmful policies and practices put in place by those to whom we entrust our higher education system. It strengthens a small percentage of already lionized collegiate brands, but does little to counter the information asymmetries that favor institutional interests over those of students, especially the growing number of low-income students and students of color who are striving to earn their way into the middle class.

Some may think I'm being overly harsh. After all, U.S. News says they are in this business because they think "students and their families should have as much information as possible about the comparative merits of the educational programs at America's colleges and universities."

But if they're really trying to compare the merits of educational programs, then why are their criteria so bogus? Why, for instance, do alumni donations and faculty compensation each count more than the percentage of students who stick around after freshman year? And why are the ratings so easily gamed?

These conditions create dangerously perverse incentives for misconduct among institutions seeking to improve their standing. Despite the publisher's proclaimed aspirations to do good, the U.S. News ranking has done nothing to provide prospective students and their families with information about the real minefields they need to navigate. And there are plenty.

Since "Best Colleges" first appeared in the early 1980s, average tuition and fees have skyrocketed by 439 percent -- twice as fast as health care costs and more than four times faster than inflation. As a result, even after counting federal, state and institutional grant aid, low-income families must come up with, on average, the equivalent of about three-fourths of their annual income to pay for just one year at a public university.

Because of these high costs, today's college student typically holds down at least one job to help pay the bills, but it is no longer feasible to pay for college through work alone. That would require working over 50 hours a week to cover the costs of a four-year public school and more than 100 hours a week at a private one. So it's no wonder that Americans now owe more in student loans than they do in credit card debt.

Given these conditions, what the vast majority of America's students, parents and high school counselors need are real data about students' chances for success. Instead, "Best Colleges" documents the historical choices of the fortunate few rather than serving as a prospective road map for the many. This "celebritization" of higher education may have earned U.S. News a handsome profit over the years, but it says little about how well these institutions actually perform their primary charge: educating students.

So let's stop pretending that "Best Colleges" offers anything more than alumni bragging rights on Twitter and Facebook. Instead, let's recognize that the decisions we need to make to drive our country forward can't be outsourced to those who are more concerned with their own bottom line than with providing a real service to those who need it the most.

A genuine tool for picking colleges exists elsewhere. College Results Online offers a wealth of information, whether you're interested in a particular college or want to find out more about a range of institutions.

This free, easy-to-use interactive tool lets you examine and compare graduation rates, student demographics and enrollment information from four-year colleges across the nation. College Results Online reveals that some colleges do a much better job of graduating students than others. It also shows that at many colleges, significant gaps exist in graduation rates between white students and students of color. But it also provides powerful examples of colleges that prove that low graduation rates -- especially for diverse students -- are not inevitable.

College Results Online provides real news that won't confuse. But don't just take my word for it: Even U.S. News agrees.

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