The following is cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com, a new blog analyzing higher education:
Heaven knows there are oodles of problems with American higher education – and you’ll get them all thoroughly dissected, diagnosed, and wellness plans delivered at SeeThruEdu – but I want to start my blogging here on a positive note. At least, a relatively positive note: American higher education is way closer to a free market than our moribund elementary and secondary system, and there’s no better sign of that than the oft-maligned U.S. News and World Report college rankings released last week.
Just like higher education generally, the U.S. News rankings have huge problems. Heck, Emory University admitted to having sent inflated SAT and ACT scores, as well as class ranks, to the publication for years. As a result, in the latest rankings Emory moved…not one bit. The school stayed as number 20 among “national universities,” and U.S. News apparently just accepted the data Emory submitted this time based on the school having “confirmed” them. More broadly, the rankings are based far more on inputs such as endowment funds, and dubious academic reputation surveys, than measures of what students actually learn.
But the good news isn’t the perfection of the U.S. News rankings. It’s what their very existence signifies: Higher ed consumers have real power, and institutions are sufficiently independent that they can both compete with one another and specialize in the needs of different students. It’s why not only do the U.S. News rankings exist, they are essentially the magazine’s flagship publication.
And college rankings are hardly restricted to U.S. News. Countless rankings and reviews are out there, giving prospective students and their parents myriad ways to slice and dice their options. No doubt the best of these – because of who’s in charge of them – comes from fellow SeeThruEdu blogger, and higher ed gadfly extraordinaire, Richard Vedder, whose Forbes.com rankings assess schools using alumni success and costs. The Princeton Review will tell you where students have their noses most to the grindstone, or most obscured by beer-filled Solo cups. And the Associated Press just profiled two new entrants, one which ranks schools based on “revealed preference” – which schools students choose when accepted to multiple institutions – and one based on alumni satisfaction. And there are many, many more!
Unfortunately, part of the reason rankings are in such incredible abundance is that there is way too much consumer power in higher ed, if by power we mean money. Basically, students can demand all sorts of extravagant things (I need my massages and water park!) because third-parties – most notably the federal government – give them wads of cash to do so. Indeed, higher education is massively inefficient as a result of humongous subsidies both directly to schools and to students. But that will be the subject of many, far less giddy posts from me in the future. For now, a bit of a happy note: Hooray for the college rankings! Things in higher education could actually be worse!