The Real Problem With the College Rat Race

The Atlantic, as part of its special report on college admissions, features a piece by former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg about the college rankings game.

The title of the piece is “How Dangerous Are College Rankings and the Rat Race For Prestige?” It’s important to be reasonable at these things, says Trachtenberg, a man who’s often very candid about his efforts to improve GW. At least partially the school did this through tuition hikes. This makes sense.

Trachtenberg is a sensible and very successful man who was very helpful in my research for a piece I wrote here last year on academic prestige. He is entirely correct about the appropriate attitude toward college rankings. That being said, he’s focusing on something that doesn’t capture the nature of the problem. As he explains:

The National Rifle Association likes to say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” College rankings aren’t dangerous or misguided so long as they are used prudently, safely and appropriately. They shed some light: they are interesting, entertaining, useful sources of gossip, and helpful for puffing but they shouldn’t inform the decision about where a student decides to matriculate, at least not definitively. They add some marginal benefit however university students are expected to be thoughtful consumers.

Allowing life decisions to be dictated by mindless rankings is like determining your future by reading your horoscope in the daily newspaper. “Leos are best suited to Ivy-League institutions; Virgos should consider the Big Ten.” Students need to decide where to enroll using multiple data points. The first has to do with the academic quality of the institution matched to the capabilities and academic record of the applicant. Wanting to go to Columbia or Harvard is not enough. Being a plausible candidate – with the grades, scores, skills, hobbies, patents, languages, references and talents is required.

Well sure. But the question was “How Dangerous Are College Rankings?” He didn’t answer the question. (Admittedly it’s “adapted from an interview” so he may not have been asked the question.) The trouble is that how students should be making “life decisions” doesn’t address what’s going on here.

The problem isn’t that some high school student will ruin his life because he picks Carnegie Mellon over Tufts because it’s six notches higher on the U.S. News ranking. The problem is that colleges are making their most fundamental decisions about undergraduate education using prestige-based rankings.

A reasonably solid way to improve rankings is to buy stuff–buildings, laboratories, faculty. And if a college wants to buy stuff it will hike tuition. And students will pay that tuition, with debt.

Now obviously students, when making their own decisions about college, consider debt. Most of them sensibly avoid taking on huge debt to go to schools that might not allow them to service that debt. But big debt is now standard. That helps determine “life decisions.” If average graduation debt at one school is $30,000 average, debt at another school can easily be $40,000. Sure it looks like a lot of debt, one might even wonder if it’s “worth it.” But if it looks standard, it’s a whole lot easier to get students to pay.

The trouble isn’t necessarily that colleges are competing based on rankings. Universities compete for variety of things. Research dollars, faculty, administrators, and graduation speakers, etc. All that is fine, but it’s not colleges making sacrifices to move higher in the rankings; it’s their students. Student debt pays for this rat race.

And because all colleges are doing this, students don’t have much choice in the matter.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer