False Advertising and College Rankings

The college ranking system plays to our innate desire to reduce the analysis to a quantitative and binary decision, bring order from chaos, and let someone else do the hard work. The question asks whether it is false advertising for a college to use its ranking to promote its academic programs. In short, the answer is no – it is a third-party and theoretically objective measure. The better questions to ask are: “Should a college actively manage their operations to impact their rating?” and “Should parents and students take the rating as ‘gospel’?”. I believe the answers to these two questions are “no” as well.

As Tierney (2013) noted while discussing the weaknesses in the ranking methodology used by U.S. News and World Report in their rankings, the approach uses a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of peer measurement and reputational measurement that account for a significant portion (22.5-25 percent) of the ranking score.  Additionally, because the algorithm rewards spending per pupil and selectivity, it provides perverse incentives to colleges to reduce affordability and cheat the system by reporting false test scores and research information to game the system.

In 2012, Claremont McKenna College falsified SAT scores for incoming students for several years. The amount of inflation was relatively small – “an average of 10-20 points each” (Slotnik & Perez-Pena, 2012). While that is a relatively small percentage on scores that scale to 1600, the school had deliberately moved into “the elite ranks – at least as measured by the most-popular rankings” (Slotnik & Perez-Pena, 2012).

While this overt cheating is unethical, the covert decision-making to actively manage rankings may be more insidious. Tierney (2013) noted that spending money on “things the U.S. News formula deems important” is harder to identify. The impacts these decisions will have on affordability and accessibility may be significantly more significant than the fraud perpetrated by Claremont McKenna College.

Several educators and organizations challenged the entrenched rankings system with seemingly positive results. Reed College refuses to participate or provide information for ranking the school. University president Colin Driver discusses several rumored “gaming the system” approaches, including not reporting international student SAT scores, inflating spending per student, ranking competitive peer schools, and creating a tiered admissions process to create artificial selectivity. Driver notes that “ the most important consequence of sitting out the rankings game, however, is the freedom to pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine.” (Driver, 2005).

Similarly, Washington Monthly developed its ranking system, which measures “three equally rated criteria: social mobility, research, and public service” (Carey, 2018). The Washington Monthly approach uses accessibility and affordability as positives rather than negatives. Carey notes that “we give high marks to colleges that enroll lots of low-income students and help them graduate and earn a good living without too much debt” (Carey, 2018).

Depending on the goal of the parent or student, using the correct type of ranking may help with the college selection process. With thousands of choices, quickly winning the field has value – and rankings provide one tool to that end. However, the adage of caveat emptor must hold. The rankings are far more subjective in what they choose to measure than objective. The cloak of objective and numerical ranking hides the subjective decisions of what to measure. U.S. News and Washington Monthly will likely arrive at different rankings for the same school.

The use of rankings is not false advertising by the school. However, failing to understand how parents and other stakeholders derive rankings is dangerous. Colleges’ active management of rankings at the expense of their students, pedagogy, and mission is insidious.



Carey, K. |. (2018, August 27). Introduction: A different kind of college ranking. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/september-october-2018/introduction-a-different-kind-of-college-ranking-10/

Diver, C. (2005, November 01). Is There Life After Rankings? Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/is-there-life-after-rankings/304308/

Gladwell, M. (2017, June 19). The Trouble with College Rankings. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-order-of-things

Jaschik, S. (2018, February 9). 3 More Instances of False Data in ‘U.S. News Rankings. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2018/02/19/false-us-news-rankings-data-discovered-three-more-universities

Nocera, J. (2012, September 29). The College Rankings Racket. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/opinion/nocera-the-silly-list-everyone-cares-about.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1378656118-l2oqJEKbEWaZatp mv0ZHw

Slotnik, D. E., & Pérez-Peña, R. (2012, January 31). College Says It Exaggerated SAT Figures for Ratings. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/education/claremont-mckenna-college-says-it-exaggerated-sat-figures.html?smid=pl-share

Tierney, J. (2014, February 18). Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/your-annual-reminder-to-ignore-the-em-us-news-world-report-em-college-rankings/279103/

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