Rankings of largely homogeneous, elite schools that enroll a pittance of college students are not doing much good nationally. The top 50 or so institutions that typically dot these lists are basically the same. They all graduate the vast majority of their students, have stellar academic reputations and are well regarded by employers.
Think of these top colleges as high-end luxury cars. You're already guaranteed a better vehicle than 95 percent of all drivers, so beyond price considerations, the relative differences are largely cosmetic.
That does not mean students, families, and policymakers would not benefit from sharper distinctions between colleges. But they do not need rankings; they need a ratings system like the one proposed by President Obama a few weeks ago.
That's an important difference. A ratings system does not try to tease out minor distinctions between effectively identical institutions. Rather, it groups colleges into broader categories that speak to the overall question of whether they are providing good value to students, as measured through some combination of whether students are likely to finish, what they will pay to do so and the socioeconomic diversity of the student body, among other factors. It also recognizes that higher education excellence exists in forms beyond the research-focused colleges that dominate ranking schemes and enroll a small share of students by having different ratings based upon different institutional missions.
Most rankings provide no useful information for students, since only a tiny fraction conduct a national search, while most choose from familiar local options. Rating the 7,000-plus institutions, and not just the top 200, would give all students at least some information on any college they are considering.
Poor performing institutions can slide by in a rankings system because it focuses on telling students which elite schools to pick and rarely assigns a value to those at the bottom. But too many students today are betting their futures on colleges where they have little chance of graduating. They don't need a ranking; they need a rating that warns them "buyer beware." A rating system that rightfully refocuses attention on the country's worst colleges will do more for national college completion goals than arguing over whether Princeton or Harvard is better.
Good information can help consumers simplify complex choices. But there's no magic formula that can definitively state the relative rank of similar colleges. Broader ratings that indicate tiers of value would be good for all students, not just the privileged few looking at elite schools.
About Ben Miller Senior Policy Analyst at the New America Foundation
Paul Glastris Editor in Chief of the Washington Monthly
Brian Kelly Editor of U.S. News & World Report
Philip Altbach Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College