Are College Rankings Just a Sham?

Each year various magazines and newspapers publish college rankings in an attempt to inform parents and prospective students which colleges are supposedly the best.

U.S. News World Report’s “Best Colleges”—perhaps the most influential of these rankings—first appeared in 1983. Since then, many other rankings have emerged, assessing colleges and universities on cost, the salaries of graduates, and other factors.

The Methodology

For example, in releasing its new college rankings in August 2019, Forbes said it “eschews common metrics like acceptance rate, endowment and freshmen SAT scores” and focuses instead on outputs like “student debt, alumni salary, graduation rate and student satisfaction.” But what, if anything, do all these college rankings really reveal about the quality and value of a particular college?

In 2018 The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education released their new rankings, which judge colleges on things that range from how much graduates earn to the campus environment to how much students engaged with instructors.

But what, if anything, do all these college rankings really reveal about the quality and value of a particular college?

In order to provide a new perspective on rankings, my colleagues Matt I. Brown, Christopher F. Chabris, and I decided to rank colleges according to the SAT or ACT scores of the students they admit. All three of us are researchers with backgrounds in education and psychology.

For our analysis, we simply ranked all 1,339 schools by a standardized test score metric.

Hierarchy of Smarts

We discovered that schools higher up on the rankings generally admit students with higher SAT or ACT scores. In other words, what the rankings largely show is the caliber of the students that a given college admits—that is, if you accept the SAT as a valid measure of a student’s caliber. Though there is often public controversy over the value of standardized tests, research shows that these tests are quite robust measures to predict academic performance, career potential, creativity, and job performance.

Critics of the SAT say it tests for students’ wealth, not caliber. While it is true that wealthier parents tend

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