What Happens When Every College is the 'Best'?

In the latest Education Outlook, the American Enterprise Institute's (AEI) Rick Hess and Taryn Hochleitner tackle college rankings inflation.

The number of schools in the 'top-tier' has increased. Because high school GPAs are inflated and the number of applications to these schools has also increased, a false sense of exclusivity is created. Such exclusivity encourages universities to charge top dollar for their perceived prestige.

Among their key points:

  • More and more schools are entering the top tiers of competitiveness rankings in the respected Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, largely because of increased numbers of application and grade inflation, not because of increased academic quality.
  • The number of schools in the most competitive Barron's category doubled between 1991 and 2011. In 1991, forty-four schools ranked as "most competitive," increasing to eighty-seven in 2011. Meanwhile, the share of schools ranked in the bottom two categories declined from 31 to 18 percent between 1991 and 2011. Indeed, there are now more very competitive institutions than less competitive ones.
  • Applicants and their families should take these rankings in perspective; interactive college guides that let students search according to lifestyle and learning preferences may better indicate where a student will find the best fit.


Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at AEI where Taryn Hochleitner is an education policy researcher. Both are available for comment and can be reached a [email protected] and [email protected], respectively, or through [email protected] (202.862.5809).

For help or for additional media inquiries, please contact Jesse Blumenthal at [email protected] (202.862.4870).

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