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 rhess@aei.org and taryn.hochleitner@aei.org, respectively, or through jenna.talbot@aei.org (202.862.5809).

For help or for additional media inquiries, please contact Jesse Blumenthal at jesse.blumenthal@aei.org (202.862.4870).

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About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.


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  • Email: rhess@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Sarah DuPre
    Phone: 202-862-7160
    Email: Sarah.DuPre@aei.org

 

Taryn
Hochleitner

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