What the College Admissions Scandal Tells Us About College Rankings

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The “College Admissions Scandal,” which broke in March 2019, galvanized the nation’s interest. The scandal involved parents paying illegal bribes to gain admission for their children to prestigious universities. The fact that some well-known celebrities were arrested in the FBI investigation, code-named “Operation Varsity Blues,” attracted widespread attention. What has attracted less attention is that the scandal offers evidence that college rankings are grossly overrated in importance.

U.S. News & World Report publishes the most well-known rankings list. Colleges that parents were bribing their kids’ admission to were ranked anywhere from No. 3 to No. 27. Certainly, these are world-class universities; however, it is unlikely that the ranking coincides to undergraduate academic rigor. If rankings mapped to rigor, there would be no incentive for parents to bribe their children’s way into a highly-ranked college. The unqualified child would simply be unable to handle the rigor and drop out. The fact that this does not happen suggests something is amiss.

One piece of evidence comes from the methodology behind the rankings. Thirty percent of a college’s ranking comes from its graduation and retention rate. Twenty percent comes from faculty resources (such as professor salaries), while another 20 percent comes from “expert opinion.” Little, if any, of this relates to academic rigor.

It is certainly desirable for students to graduate from college. However, this should be done through meeting a rigorous set of graduation requirements and demonstrating content knowledge in their chosen major. Certainly, this does occur. However, the focus on graduation and retention leads to bad incentives, which include grade inflation and the proliferation of less rigorous majors. A college failing a student might be a sign of standards and academic rigor, but it could move the college down the rankings.

There is ample evidence that grade inflation has been rampant for at least 50 years. According to gradeinflation.com, the most common grade in 1963 was C, corresponding to one-third of all grades. Only 15 percent of grades were an A. By 2012, A was the most common grade, corresponding to 45 percent of all grades. Less than 15 percent of grades were a C. Over the last several decades, A has become the new C. And, despite the nationwide focus on STEM, STEM majors are not becoming more popular. According to National Public Radio, only three percent of students majored in computer science in 2011, five percent majored in engineering, and one percent majored in mathematics, all of which are smaller percentages than 30 years ago.

There is ample evidence that the value of a college degree has increased in importance in recent decades. However, the nationwide obsession with rankings undercuts this and dilutes the quality of the degree. Colleges should return to their roots by focusing on delivering rigorous content with high grading and graduation standards. This will ensure that a college degree will remain a valuable credential for years to come.

 

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