'Crazy U' Takes on the College Rankings

A new book analyzes the growing influence of college rankings.

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'Crazy U' book cover.

Andrew Ferguson's new book, Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, is a critique of the college admissions process and includes a very large section on the evolution and growing impact of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, writes about his firsthand experience with the world of college admissions through the lens of a parent and a skeptical journalist who asked tough questions as part of his quest to get his son into college.

He takes on private guidance counselors, essay writing guides, SAT/ACT prep, College Confidential, college tours, college rankings, financial aid, and obsessive parents. Ferguson also discusses how getting into college has become a big business and what that means to prospective students and their parents.

Regarding the college rankings, he writes:

U.S. News didn't invent college rankings, but its brand is the most popular and far-reaching in influence, maintaining a long lead in sales and prominence over its many imitators, both in the United States and in more than thirty other countries. College administrators often profess to hate the rankings. Whenever admission deans gather, the hallways ring with condemnations of the magazine. Meanwhile the same administrators read it, feed it, and fidget all summer until the new edition arrives, and then wave it around like a bride's garter belt if the school gets a favorable review. The U.S. News guide acquired its power because, by design or dumb luck, it has perfectly reflected the shifting views that Americans themselves have held about college. As education democratized, a college degree became more desirable than the learning it was originally meant to signify. It was a guarantor of smarts, drive, social standing and future prospects. U.S. News was the first college guide to absorb this reality."

Ferguson does criticize the rankings by pointing out that they can be "gamed," noting how overly influential they have become, and asserting that they rely "too heavily" on "inputs" rather than "outcomes." This last weakness in the rankings, he says, "reflects another reality too, one that is no fault of U.S. News. There's lots of useful information about 'outcomes' at American colleges and universities. But it's not public. For twenty years [college presidents] have criticized the U.S. News rankings for lacking precision and authority—for obsessing about inputs when outcomes are what really matter—even as they sit on the outcomes data that might make the rankings more authoritative and precise."

What is my opinion of Crazy U? Ferguson takes on all of those involved in higher education and the admissions process and offers meaningful insights into why things are the way they are. His book sheds a lot of light on what "really" goes on behind the scenes when you apply to college—not the fantasy college viewbook version.

See other coverage of the book:

-- The Washington Post: A review of 'Crazy U,' by Andrew Ferguson, about his family's college admissions experience

-- National Review: Podcast with Andrew Ferguson on Crazy U

-- Book Page: A review of Crazy U: Surviving college admissions 101

-- Inside Higher Ed: Crazy U

-- Marketplace: A crash course on how to get your kid into college

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