Earlier this week, officials at Claremont McKenna College admitted that a senior administrator had, since 2005, been reporting inflated SAT scores to publications like U.S. News & World Report in order to boost the school’s ranking. That admission has brought new scrutiny to college rankings, which many say are too influential. Do colleges and universities have any good reason to care what U.S. News thinks?
Research suggests that whatever flaws the rankings may have, schools would be foolish to ignore them. That’s because, according to two studies, a higher rank attracts more elite students. A 2004 study examined the impact of the U.S. News rankings, which (during the time of much of the study’s data set) ranked the top 25 schools and assigned the others to quartiles. The study found that when schools moved to higher quartiles in the ranks, they increased the number of incoming students from the top 10 percent of their high school class and lowered their acceptance rate. And a 2005 study reports that the U.S. News ranking significantly affects the yield rate of accepted students. What’s more, the study noted, “these preferences for the USNWR rank are independent of other measures of quality (student-faculty ratio and expenditures per student).” Of course, as the authors note, the U.S. News rank is not a universally-accepted measure of quality, but that doesn’t seem to matter to elite students trying to choose a college. Apparently, for many of the college administrators trying to attract those students, it doesn’t matter either.