Rankings and Grades–Two Inflated Currencies

Although high school students applying to colleges invariably rely on college ranking guides as a primary source of information, these guides are often misleading and, in most cases, counterproductive. Frederick Hess and Faryn Hochleitner at the American Enterprise Institute (College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige) AEI, 5/24/12 contend “the ranks of the top tier schools are growing without any evidence that these schools’ instructional quality is increasing.”

In fact, what is happening could be described as the Lake Woebegone effect since there is a dramatic increase in the schools ranked above average. In the most competitive category, according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, the number of colleges listed doubled from 1991 to 2011 (from 44 to 87). At the same time, the so-called “less competitive” classification witnessed major declines from 467 in 1991 to 275 in 2011.

Obviously the prestige inflation is due in large part to the deflation in “less competitive” schools. My suspicion is that these judgments are influenced by student grade inflation since that is one of the criteria for the rankings. When I was applying to schools it was customary for high school instructors to say: “God gets an A, I get a B and you get what is left?” Now, of course, most students get A’s whether they deserve it or not. Since the 1990’s high school grade point averages have risen from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.0 in 2009. If one were to turn the clock back to the 1980’s, the average was 2.0.

Moreover, there isn’t any evidence that the students with 3.0 grade point averages are any more qualified to attend college than their counterparts from yesteryear. One might even claim they are less qualified than students in the past.

What then do these rankings mean? The answer is not much. It turns out these rankings are used by parents as cocktail palaver, but other than bragging rights there isn’t much to recommend them. Of note is that the inflation syndrome affects these ratings like almost every other dimension of academic life. The sad part is that as the ratings tend upward, performance, as seen through the lens of cognitive skills, is moving in a different direction. Students may feel good about themselves, but in the economic competition among nations the U.S. is falling far behind.

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