What’s Frenzy Got To Do With It?

The college admission world’s favorite piñata, the US News rankings of colleges and universities, came out a few weeks ago, with the usual non-surprises except for some movement in the lower ranks. Why that qualifies as “news” is a mystery, but we have so much fun swinging at it and picking up the sweet, sweet morsels it dispenses, I guess it qualifies as a fiesta no matter what.

Most of us blame US News for creating, or at least being a major contributor to, the frenzy surrounding the college admission process. Parents supposedly parse it to distinguish among colleges #15, #23 and #24; university presidents and trustees fret over any slippage; some admission offices have submitted false data to help boost their rankings; some institutions opt out entirely by refusing to submit their data. All kinds of shady, surprising, and silly behaviors have spread through the college admission process because of the appearance of this annual bible. It’s our number one suspect in the abduction and ruination of an otherwise stately and “pure” process.

However, I’d like to offer an alternative theory of the crime: College rankings are not a cause, but the result, of developments in the college admission world that we lament.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Undergraduate enrollment increased 47 percent between 1970 and 1983, when it reached 10.8 million.” After 1983, the number dipped slightly, but from 1985 to 1992 it rose 18 percent, stabilized between 1992 and 1998, then rose 32 percent from 2001 to 2011 (13.7 million to 18.1 million students). These are substantial growth numbers and represent a capitalist’s dream of an ever-expanding market: Just this past weekend, for example, Apple sold over 10 million iPhone 6s at premium prices, many no doubt to people who subsequently smashed their recently-purchased and now-loathsome $600.00 iPhone 5s to dust. If only colleges could tap into that mojo!

The period from 1970 and 1983 had millions of new potential college students (and their parents) looking for a place to spend their money and time. Before this huge upswing, most colleges, even those now heading the US News rankings, were more regional than national in the composition of their student bodies. The average distance a student traveled to college was 250 miles, a distance that has remained relatively constant over the years. Of course students from much farther away attended the Harvards and the Amhersts of the college biosphere, but they were more likely to have had legacy or alumni connections to the institutions or been brought to them through special circumstances. It was more genteel, if less “democratic.”

But the increase in prospective students was a perfect moment to tap into that market and start building a “national” reputation at the same time. A “national” presence could burnish the institution’s reputation, while also attracting more and more talented students, creating, it was hoped, an ever-reinforcing cycle. And for many institutions with the money and resources, it was worth the effort.

To become national, of course, colleges had to recruit nationally. Forty years ago, Noel-Levitz (recently merged with Ruffalo-Cody) began working with colleges to develop marketing materials; other marketing companies entered the arena around the same time,  advising colleges on how to attract the students they wanted. More marketing and PR firms arose to serve the ambitions of colleges. Focus groups and surveys were conducted,  and viewbooks took on the look of luxury cruise brochures. The competition was on!

Now, colleges had several questions to consider as they tried to advance their positions: 1. How could they differentiate themselves from similar colleges and 2. How could they persuade students to choose an institution across the country when those students most likely had a perfectly good one not all that far from home?

Into the gap in 1983 came USNews‘s first college ranking issue, which has since become a mega-issue and its biggest annual seller. At the time, with more and more colleges vying for those 10 million students, sending out more and more material (think of the forests sacrificed before the Internet!) and expanding their own horizons, college choice became a complex proposition for families, who needed some “expert” guidance.

USNews provided the solution: rankings that assessed various institutional elements considered important for making decisions about where to apply and enroll, creating a hierarchy which, whether you agree with it or not, provided an organizing principle for decision making. Once the mechanism was in place, it became a symbiotic relationship impossible to stop: rankings brought “regional” schools into the national spotlight (even the ones the rankings labelled “regional” schools!) and helped colleges market themselves; the more they did so, the more they saw their applications increase and their rankings change. They came to depend on this “neutral” source to validate their efforts, even as many learned to manipulate certain elements of the formula, such as acceptance rates and yield, to increase their standing. (USNews has changed its methodology several times over the years, but the effect is substantially the same.)

College rankings did not appear in a vacuum. They entered a space where capitalism meets education, with both sides willing partners in the matchup, even if it compromised colleges’ appearance of detachment from the need to keep the lights on. In today’s fiscal climate, however, the need for colleges to have comfortable endowments (traditionally  relegated to the background as in a Henry James or Edith Wharton novel) brings their own entanglements with capitalist imperatives to the fore.

It does us good to swing at the rankings piñata; it says we’re still ambivalent about the too-blatant connection of education and commerce. In our mythical vision of college, we want to believe that the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald still exists, its hushed campus full of well-dressed students who carry on louche conversations about social mobility or Kant or sex, and fret about the upcoming squash match against Yale. But in the harsh light of American culture and commerce, we know this is merely a fable attached like a lamprey to the realities of American higher education.

Rankings are actually a logical result of the massive expansion of higher education options imposed on a similarly expanding market in need of some “objective” information upon which to make decisions. The essence of capitalism being competition and expansion,   institutional integrity will always conflict with the need to survive. Colleges may excoriate rankings while secretly hoping they’ll vindicate their efforts, but don’t blame the rankings for causing the so-called “frenzy” of college admission; and don’t blame colleges for being caught in the market. Ultimately, rankings are merely a symptom, not a cause, of commercial disruption in the educational world.

Postscript: Despite all the marketing efforts of colleges and universities in the U.S. over the years, a 2013 study of college freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA finds that 83 percent still attend a four-year college or university 500 miles or less from their homes, with 41 percent in the 11- to 100-mile range and 30 percent in the 101- to 500-mile range. (The survey includes all four-year institutions, including Catholic, public, private, and HBCUs.)