By contributor
updated 8/17/2010 1:54:25 PM ET 2010-08-17T17:54:25

As the annual binge of college rankings crests this week, Ethan Haines isn’t just fed up. He’s fed out. 

Major Market Indices

The unemployed law school grad launched a hunger strike Aug. 5 to protest U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings and the undue influence he believes that yearly index has on college selections and, eventually, law firm hires.

His criticisms: The magazine’s rankings contain “inaccurate” employment stats and “ineffective” career counseling. What’s more, law schools collaborate with the magazine which, Haines argues, skews the profession’s already-brutal entry-level environment.

“This is a plea for reform,” Haines wrote in an e-mail interview. He has forwarded his “official notice” to 10 law schools plucked “randomly” from U.S. News’ top 100. He wants them to address “the public’s overwhelming reliance on these controversial rankings” which, he contends, hurts law students by “increasing the cost of legal education.” Haines won’t reveal his age or alma mater because, he said, his anonymity boosts the sense that young lawyers have a “united front.” But his blog describes what he’s feeling — cramps, headaches, muscle weakness — and what he’s lost, 10 pounds in 12 days.

“If the same tactics are used in (ranking) undergrad as in law school, then I have the same concerns,” Haines wrote to “If you are undertaking a major where your undergrad institution is irrelevant, then you should not be cajoled into attending a higher-ranked institution at a higher cost just because someone says that is the only way to get hired.” For some students, the chance to attend college “is a matter of survival. Rankings ... should not exploit this desire.”

Haines’ ravenous rant comes amid a feast of fresh college rankings. This month, U.S. News & World Report (law schools), the Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine all published separate lists. On Tuesday, U.S. News offers its “2011 Best Colleges” analysis.

Echoing the unemployed lawyer, however, a backlash is building against the thickening crowd of college reviewers. According to many parents, students and educators, the annual lists are misleading and unhelpful — and some fail to focus on a pressing issue: value.

“I do not like the rankings,” said Kristin Hiemstra, a high school guidance counselor in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The same way designer labels define the perceived value of the popular high school clique, designer college rankings define the perceived value of a particular school’s education. In the same way poor-fitting designer clothes are a waste of money so is a poor (college) match. ... When a student is a good match for a school, they will learn more about themselves. ... This highly personal aspect of education is not measurable.”

We're No. 1! Harvard tops college rankings list

Of course, many students pick colleges simply because the schools score high in exclusivity. The name on the diploma can make or break a job applicant’s candidacy.

“When the Wall Street Journal ranked Johns Hopkins (University) as one of the 10 most expensive schools in the country, it cemented our decision — though it sounds strange,” said Judy Schaffer, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. Her son attends Hopkins. “We are willing to pay for the prestige, networking and quality of staff that Hopkins offers. ... The people who belittle the importance of top-ranked schools may not understand the value of the connections these schools provide.”

Still, the once-mighty power of college rankings has unquestionably slipped among parents who are shopping more cautiously for education, said Mike Sexton, whose two daughters recently graduated from colleges.

“The (lists) have lost their misplaced position of importance,” Sexton said. The erosion of their relevance, he added, has been accelerated by market clutter: “Every magazine has to have some slant on colleges and everybody and their mother keeps writing new books on college admissions.”

A college admissions executive himself, Sexton has joined other academics in specifically chastising U.S. News & World Report.

“I share some wide-held concerns about the ability for the magazine to determine ‘best.’ This is not unique to U.S. News,” said Sexton, vice president of enrollment management at Santa Clara University. “In America, we want to keep score. We want winners and, therefore, ‘lessers.’ We want simple answers to often complex questions, the college search being a prime example.”

Sexton is one of 15 college admissions officials who advise the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit launched in 2005 to help applicants “overcome commercial interference in college admissions,” its website says. In 2007, the Conservancy drafted a letter, signed by 65 college presidents, rebuking the U.S. News & World Report rankings as a tool of “false precision” that overemphasizes “prestige” and encourages “wasteful spending.” The 65 presidents, representing schools including Dickinson College, Drew University and San Francisco State, pledged not to cooperate with the magazine or use its rankings in promotional materials.

U.S. News & World Report still surveys, according to the magazine, more than 1,400 colleges to assemble its hierarchical pecking order of undergrad schools. To stack the schools, the magazine uses a weighted set of data points provided by the universities, including student retention, student selectivity and alumni giving, the magazine’s website explains. What’s more, U.S. News asks college presidents to assess their peers — asking them to score the academics at competing colleges from five (“distinguished”) to one (“marginal”).

“We believe we’re filling a void,” said Robert Morse, the magazine’s data research director. “The cost of education is going up faster than ever. There are reduced counseling resources at high schools from budget cuts. People are left on their own to try figure out where the best schools are. We’re providing information to help them do that.”

That law colleges and legal firms apply significance to the U.S. News rankings is not the magazine’s fault, said Morse, who vowed to “try to reach out to” Haines. He added that the rugged financial realities faced by new lawyers, including a decline in top-paying jobs, are beyond any magazine’s control. “Students are getting frustrated — they’re frustrated at the legal profession and the economy.”

But within the larger world of undergraduate schools, U.S. News also has been chided by educators for raising the stakes of student recruitment. Several colleges have overtly manipulated — and, thus, elevated — their standing in the magazine’s rankings. A lofty position on that index can lure more applicants and, of course, increase revenue. During a 2009 gathering of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta, one educator revealed how such “gaming” occurred at Clemson University. Catherine Watt, who headed Clemson’s institutional research office until 2006, told the forum that Clemson artificially inflated faculty salaries, purposely gave rival schools low grades and fudged class-size stats — all to ascend the U.S. News rankings.

“You’re going to see this sort of gaming behavior in any system where the grading rubric is public knowledge,” said Jodi N. Beggs, who earned a master’s degree in economics at Harvard University and who is completing her Ph.D. there.

Beggs was impacted by the rankings trickery in 2005 when she lectured on economics at Northeastern University. “I had to give two identical (non-interactive) lectures back-to-back because the department capped enrollment in the classes at 49 so that it could get a high score on (lists that lauded schools for) how many classes had fewer than 50 students. I don’t think that this was really beneficial for the students; it (also) added to the costs for the university.

“I am not trying to criticize the university,” Beggs added. Northeastern was simply “playing within context of the system that has been set up for it.”

One of the chief distinctions the Princeton Review draws between its lists and competitors’ rankings involves “gaming.” Because the Princeton Review collects feedback only from surveys of 122,000 students — and plugs those into three previous years of data — “our rankings are not gameable,” said Robert Franek, senior vice president of the publication.

Best known for its lineup of top party schools, the Princeton Review (which is not affiliated with Princeton University) bases its assessments on how “students rate their schools. ... Best fit is what matters the most ... And that requires knowing way more about a school than its academic credentials.

“All college ranking lists aren't the same. But since the early 1990s when we debuted ... so many others have (emerged), it is understandable that people ... tend to see them all in the same old boat,” Franek added. “To some extent, applicants are suffering from ‘rankings fatigue.’ Which ones can you trust?”

© 2013  Reprints

Video: Where are the best colleges?

  1. Transcript of: Where are the best colleges?

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: This morning on our special series BACK TO SCHOOL TODAY , the top college rankings . With the rising cost of higher education , many students and parents are wondering not only where to go to school , but if they can even afford it. U.S. News World Report is out with its annual college rankings , including some money-saving choices to consider. Kim Clark is the magazine's senior education writer. Kim , good morning to you.

    Ms. KIM CLARK (Senior Education Writer, U.S. News World Report): Thanks for having me.

    VIEIRA: This is the -- it's nice to have you here. This is the 27th annual list. Let's take a look at the top 10 here, and then tell me if there are any surprises on this list.

    Ms. CLARK: Sure. We're -- well, traditionally, Harvard , Princeton and Yale have sort of dominated...

    VIEIRA: They usually vie for that top one, yeah.

    Ms. CLARK: Right, dominated the top three. And this year, Harvard just eked out to be number one. But the differences between those three are so tiny, we're talking 1 or 2 percentage points on graduation rates and admissions rates that you shouldn't make a big deal about that.

    VIEIRA: Yeah, and you see a couple of schools tied for fifth place; three schools tied for ninth place.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: So you -- very minimal differences between them all.

    Ms. CLARK: That's right . Then there was Columbia , Stanford , Penn , and the two great tech universities, Cal Tech and MIT . And then there was a three-way

    tie for ninth: Dartmouth , Duke and the University of Chicago .

    VIEIRA: OK. The magazine's rankings this year also consists of two interesting smaller sub-categories, or lists. Great Schools, Great Prices" is one of them, and the other is "Up and Comers." Let's talk first about Great Schools , Great Prices . What's the criteria used to rank schools?

    Ms. CLARK: Right, so we made a score of all the indicators of quality. You know, alumni giving rates, graduation rates, admission rates, and we divided that by the net price that students actually pay. Not the sticker price you see on the Web site , but the price that students actually paid if they received need-based financial aid . And when we did that, it turns out Yale University came out on top, even though they have a sticker price of 53 or so thousand dollars, and that's because they're so generous with financial aid , that 53 -- 54 percent of students don't pay that big sticker price , they get financial aid and the average price paid by that 54 percent was about $14,000.

    VIEIRA: What an amazing difference that is, my gosh.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: One of the schools on the list is the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma , a school I was not familiar with.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: Why did that school make the list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, everybody's heard of private liberal arts colleges ...

    VIEIRA: Right.

    Ms. CLARK: ...which are expensive and they have small classes. This is one of a handful of public liberal arts colleges , so they have those same small classes but at a much lower price because it's a public university .

    VIEIRA: You mentioned Yale as well. Well, Harvard 's on the list for the sort of -- I suppose the same reason because there the initial price to go to Harvard is about $55,000.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: That's the sticker price .

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Well, what most people don't realize is that schools like Harvard , Princeton and Yale are starting to charge on a sliding scale. So for example at Harvard , if you come from a family that earns less than $60,000, you're going to get basically a full ride, basically a full ride. If you come from a family that earns between 60,000 and $180,000, Harvard promises that they won't charge you more than 10 percent of your family's income. So you come from a family that earns $180,000, you get a Harvard education. That means room, board, books, tuition, travel for $18,000. That's a great value.

    VIEIRA: That is a great value. From Cambridge , Massachusetts , we're going to go off to Wisconsin to Ripon College .

    Ms. CLARK: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: Annual price for that college usually around $35,000. So why is it on the list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, Ripon is...

    VIEIRA: Same reasons?

    Ms. CLARK: ... Ripon is one of those schools that nobody's heard of, but it's a very nice school . It has very good graduation rate. But what you don't see on the Web site is that -- and the folks there have told me -- that 98 percent of students do not pay that $35,000 price . Only 2 percent of students do. The rest get financial aid . And the average price paid by the students who receive need-based financial aid is half that, about 18 or $19,000.

    VIEIRA: You know, there's this saying " you get what you pay for ." Is there any downside to this?

    Ms. CLARK: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    Ms. CLARK: Certainly college is just like everything else. Sometimes, but not always, you do get what you pay for, and some of these colleges are using low prices because they have some problems. The university in Oklahoma for example is a great school , but they are having some problems. I think about a third of their freshman don't return for sophomore years which indicates, you know, some problems. So they're trying to use financial aid to lure...

    VIEIRA: As an incentive for kids to come in.

    Ms. CLARK: ...better students. Right.

    VIEIRA: The next list is Up and Comers , and this includes some already well-known schools like USC is on, I think, Tulane , Pepperdine . What's the criteria to get on that list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, what we did was we surveyed college presidents, provosts and college admissions officers and they what -- we asked them, "What are the schools that are making the most interesting improvements and should be watched" and that's this list.

    VIEIRA: OK. And one of the schools that you name is the University of Maryland Baltimore County . What are its selling points?

    Ms. CLARK: Well if you want to go to the traditional campus with ivy league -- ivy buildings and you want to bond with your roommate...

    VIEIRA: This is not it.

    Ms. CLARK: ...this is not that school ...


    Ms. CLARK: ...because it's a very new campus and they don't have a football team. But they have a president who's trying to make it cool to be smart. They have a championship chess team, and they have chess scholarships, and they have an excellent rate of getting kids into medical school and PhD programs.

    VIEIRA: OK. Across the country, you included a tech school in Northern California .

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is in a beautiful location. It's in wine country, it's right next to the Pacific Ocean .

    VIEIRA: I'm going.

    Ms. CLARK: Right, exactly. And it's a great school for anyone who's interested in tech and engineering. and actually it also has a good business program and it's not surprising because of its location, you can actually study winemaking there.

    VIEIRA: Which should be a lot of fun, yeah. And you do not need to be a technology major, in other words, to go there. That's not a mandate.

    Ms. CLARK: No, right, right.

    VIEIRA: And what's the graduation rate at that school ?

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Well, actually 70 percent of the students who enter as freshman do graduate within six years. Now that may seem low, but it's actually better than the national average.

    VIEIRA: All right, Kim Clark , thank you very much . A lot of -- the point is, there are a lot of great schools out there. People just need to take the time to research them.

    Ms. CLARK: Right. And one way to do that is to go, of course, to and we have great statistics that you can look up and also the Department of Education has a wonderful free Web site called The Navigator .

    VIEIRA: We appreciate you time. Thank you very much .

Vote: Are annual college rankings helpful or misleading?

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 3.79%
$30K home equity loan FICO 4.99%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.69%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.83%
Cash Back Cards 17.80%
Rewards Cards 17.18%