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This spring, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors will check their
mailboxes hoping for fat envelopes from their dream colleges. Choosing the right
school may be the biggest decision of a young person’s life, so to help ensure
that their tuition money is well spent, these wide-eyed students and their
protective parents turn to college guides. Unfortunately, because of inflation
in college rankings, these guides may encourage families to pay top dollar for
Annually, Barron’s Educational Series publishes the authoritative,
encyclopedic, 1,600-page Profiles of American Colleges. Barron’s ranks schools
as “most competitive,” “highly competitive,” “very competitive,” “competitive,”
“less competitive,” and “noncompetitive.”
For years, these distinctions have fueled expectations and activity among
students, parents, and guidance counselors. For the most ambitious high-school
seniors, the difference between enrolling in a “most competitive” and a “highly
competitive” school can be a source of great concern. For the institutions,
higher rankings translate into prestige and the willingness of star-struck
admittees to fork over thousands of extra tuition dollars.
Recently, according to Barron’s, a raft of schools jumped into the upper
echelons of academia, alongside the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales. In the 2009
edition, 82 schools were ranked “most competitive.” Ten years ago, just 54 were.
Institutions now listed among the elite of the elite include the College of New
Jersey, Occidental College, and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
And even as dozens of colleges left the “highly competitive” category for the
top tier, the number of “highly competitive” colleges has increased from 92 to
109. It now includes institutions like Gustavus Adolphus College and Kalamazoo
College alongside UC-Berkeley.
Barron’s didn’t relax its standards per se; the criteria have remained
constant. Top-tier colleges take students who ranked in the top 20 percent of
their high-school classes, earned GPAs of A to B+, and received SAT scores in
reading and math of 655 to 800. These schools admit fewer than a third of
So what explains the change? Some of the schools with higher rankings may
truly have improved, but the most significant factor is that two of the Barron’s
criteria–high-school grades and percentage of applicants accepted–don’t mean
what they did a decade ago. Grade inflation, and students’ applying to more
schools than they used to, have juiced the numbers to make students look more
qualified and schools more selective.
Grade inflation, dubbed “high schools’ skeleton in the closet” by Lehigh
University education professor Perry Zirkel, has been a creeping phenomenon for
two decades. A 2004 College Board study reported that the fraction of SAT takers
claiming an A average had risen from 13 percent to 18 percent over the past
decade, a time during which SAT scores declined slightly. The mean GPA of
high-school graduates increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005, according to
the U.S. Department of Education; meanwhile, twelfth-grade reading scores on the
National Assessment of Educational Progress declined between 1992 and 2007.
Also, whereas college-bound students used to limit applications to a few top
choices, it is not unusual for students today to apply to many more. UCLA’s
Higher Education Research Institute has reported that the percentage of
high-school seniors who applied to four or more colleges increased by more than
a quarter from 1996 to 2006 and now stands at over 60 percent. The proportion of
students who submitted only one application declined by a quarter in that same
span and is now around 17 percent. Of course, when students in general submit
more applications, colleges in general get to reject more applicants–making
schools across the board more “selective” by the Barron’s criteria.
Rankings and labels can play a useful role in helping prospective students
and their parents navigate the college-selection process. However, it is clear
that that the labels on many schools should be taken with a grain of salt. Faux
exclusivity might be good for endowment coffers and parental bragging rights,
but it encourages families to pay top-shelf prices for store-brand
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of
education policy at AEI. Thomas Gift is a research assistant at AEI.
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