Wednesday, April 04, 2007

US News and World Report Rankings Strike Again

By Bryan O’Keefe

The Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting piece (subscription required) yesterday on the rise of applications and lower admission rates at America’s colleges and universities. This means that more and more students are applying to colleges while at the same time fewer and fewer colleges – especially of the highly selective variety – are actually accepting students.

The story mentions a couple different reasons for this dynamic, including more students graduating from high school, more foreign students applying to American universities, and greater acceptance of the “common application” which allows students to apply to many colleges all at once, instead of filling out individual applications for each place.

There is no doubt that all of these are factors in this equation, but one piece that they did not discuss is, again, the role of the US News and World Report rankings. I have no firm evidence on this point, but I strongly suspect that the rankings are also playing some role in driving this admissions bonanza.

That’s because part of the rankings are based on the number of applications that a school receives and either admits or rejects (with the more selective schools almost always getting the higher rankings). So, pretty much every school and admissions office has an incentive to tell prospective students to go ahead and apply, even if their scores aren’t particularly strong. The school really doesn’t lose out – when you are rejecting tens of thousands of applications anyway, what’s a couple hundred more on the pile? It’s especially easy to do this if the applicant’s scores are very low because it will be an easy decision to send them the rejection letter.

I don’t think there are any real negative effects from this, per se. I suppose that some high school students probably get their hopes up and think that Yale or Harvard or wherever is interested in them when, in reality, they aren’t. That’s a sad story, but it’s also partially the student’s own fault. Instead of listening to every admissions department about how wonderful they are and how they would fit right in on campus XYZ, students should be realistic, carefully research their options, and base their applications for the most part on whether or not their scores really meet the admissions criteria set forth by the school. That strategy might take some humble pie, but will ultimately lead to less disappointment in the end. It’s probably best to take what the actual school tells you with a grain of salt.

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