As someone many years out of college, but who works for a publication that issues its own college ranking every year, I often have to look at other college guides for information about methodology and goals.

One thing that often occurs to me in this process is that many of the schools I actually know appear to have become much more prestigious. Mid-tier state schools are now “highly competitive.” Former normal schools are “very competitive.” Finishing schools admit men and are now “competitive” too.

What’s going on here? It seems puzzling is how many of these schools are now categorized as “selective” or something by college guides. It’s probably not so much that the colleges are any different, however. The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess and a researcher looked at Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges and discovered something interesting. As Hess explains in Education Week:

The number of schools in the top category doubled between 1991 and 2011. In 1991, 44 schools ranked as “most competitive.” In 2011, 87 did. The growth is due to a slew of institutions migrating up to the top tier: 17 schools moved up between 1991 and 2001, and 28 more since 2001. The ranks of the “highly” and “very competitive” have also grown steadily since 1991.

Do these findings reflect more schools being ranked? Nope. The total number of schools in the rankings has barely changed, meaning that the distribution of schools has shifted. The top three Barron’s tiers used to make up less than a quarter of the colleges in the rankings; they now account for almost a third.

Meanwhile, the number of “less competitive” and “noncompetitive” schools has plunged; the share of schools ranked in these bottom categories declined from 31 to 18 percent between 1991 and 2011. This all means that there are now more very competitive institutions than less competitive ones.

This is a really interesting point about college rankings; thanks to population growth and an increase in the number of people applying to colleges, they’re pretty much all getting higher ranked.

This is because the rankings are based on four things “high school class rank, high school grades, standardized test scores, and an institution’s selectivity rate.” The institution’s selectivity rate and high school grades have gotten much more impressive in recent years. Bu the selectivity rate is based only on the population applying, which has little to do with the colleges themselves. High school grades likewise have increased over time, though there’s little objective information to suggest that students are dramatically better prepared for college than they ever were (how about that remediation?)

There’s no horrible violation here. While the average reader might understandably get the impression that when a publication categorizes colleges as “most competitive, highly competitive, very competitive, competitive, less competitive, noncompetitive, those schools are reasonably equitably distributed, the publication doesn’t actually say this.

It’s not inaccurate to say these schools are ranked higher now, and Barron’s makes no pretense that its ranking guide is a real ordered list from terrible to great.

But this is important to keep in mind when thinking about college quality. Being “more competitive” doesn’t really say much about the college; it’s just about who’s going to the college. It’s an input, not an output .

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