It's approaching that season when students and their parents anxiously await college admissions decisions. But increasingly, an equally feverish process is infecting the other side of the transaction and distorting the process of who gets financial aid.
Colleges these days engage in an ever more frantic competition for ''rankings," driven almost entirely by the annual U.S. News & World Report issue on ''America's Best Colleges." U.S. News is so dominant that when a dean boasts that his school is ranked in the top 10, or a president's bonus is based on whether his college makes it into the top 50, they invariably refer to U.S. News.
Massive efforts by admission departments, deans, and college presidents are devoted to gaming the U.S. News ranking system, published every August. This includes everything from manipulating who is considered a part-time student (which raises the reported performance of full-time students) to giving students temporary research jobs in order to raise the placement score reported to U.S. News. But the easiest single way to raise rankings is by enrolling students with ever higher SAT scores.
If the average score of your entering freshman class increases, the U.S. News ranking will probably improve, too. And if your ranking goes up, the presumed prestige of the college will follow. More kids will apply, more applicants will choose your college rather than brand X, and, best of all, more families will pay sticker price.
This competition spawns many evils that should shame a higher education system devoted to intellectual honesty. But perhaps the worst thing about it is what the ranking obsession is doing to the allocation of financial aid. More and more scholarship money is being shifted from aid based on financial need to aid based on ''merit."
That sounds nice -- who could be opposed to merit? But today's ''merit scholarships" are primarily bait to attract students with very high SAT scores who don't need the aid. The flip side is less aid available to students from less affluent families, who can't attend college without aid, or who must sacrifice academic work to paid jobs, or who graduate with staggering debt loads.
There is, of course, a limited pot of financial aid. One reason tuitions keep relentlessly rising is that some of the tuition money goes to underwrite financial aid budgets. That would be defensible, even laudable -- if colleges were ''taxing" affluent families in order to redistribute aid money to less affluent ones. But when higher tuitions spin off scholarships for other affluent kids intended mainly to raise rankings, the result is to doubly raise barriers to poor and middle class kids, with both higher tuition barriers and diminished aid.
One result: poorer performance by poorer kids. Forty percent of all college students from the most affluent quarter of the population get a bachelor's degree within five years. For kids in the bottom income quarter, the figure is just six percent, according to a new book, ''Strapped," by Tamara Draut.
Another consequence: Affluent families pass their affluence along to their children. According to studies by Anthony P. Carnevale and Steven J. Rose, nearly three-quarters of students at elite universities are from the wealthiest quarter of the population. Just 3 percent are from the bottom quarter.
The U.S. News process for ranking colleges and universities has been almost universally condemned by specialists as junk science. Publishing a data-rich guide to colleges is a service. What's bogus is the supposed ranking. As any statistician will tell you, you can't reasonably combine entirely unrelated variables (test scores, reputation, placements, spending per student, student aid, etc.) into a single linear index. Worse, the criteria and their weightings are arbitrary. It's hard anough for colleges to come up with financial aid based on need, without a spurious ranking contest creating inducements to subsidize the already privileged.
The data sent by colleges to U.S. News are self-reported and unaudited. Also, many of the factors are entirely subjective to begin with. One dean told me that when she rates reputations of other comparable graduate schools, she hasn't a clue how to rate more than a few. There is also the all-too-human temptation to downgrade the near competition.
Oregon's Reed College, for more than a decade, has stopped cooperating with U.S. News. The college's president, Colin Diver, writing in the Atlantic, reported that liberation from this annual hazing has freed Reed to ''pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some magazine." Reed has thrived.
Others should follow Reed's lead and just boycott this travesty.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
2006 The Boston Globe