US News Rankings Give Top Marks To Brutally Expensive Schools

Blake Neff | Reporter

The 2016 edition of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings has been released, with Princeton University taking the top slot for the third year in a row.

In addition to its main ranking of national universities, U.S. News also ranked the top liberal arts colleges (Williams Colleges took first for the 13th year in a row) and the top public schools (University of California, Berkeley).

The U.S. News rankings, released annually, are the most popular college rankings in the U.S., and schools are known for putting in heroic efforts to boost their rankings just a handful of spots. As a result, the rankings have come under substantial criticism for helping to drive the surge in tuition at American colleges. Among schools in the top 20 of this year’s rankings, 19 charge over $40,000 a year in tuition, 16 charge at least $45,000, and two even charge over $50,000. The highest-ranking school to cost less than $30,000 to attend (besides in-state tuition for public colleges) is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which costs $26,660 for out-of-state students. (RELATED: America’s 53 Best Colleges Period, When You Consider Everything That Matters)

The situation is even worse for the liberal arts college rankings. Among the top 25, every single one costs at least $45,000 a year, except for West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy (which are free).

The high rankings for high-cost schools are no coincidence, as schools often have a perverse incentive to ratchet up costs as much as possible. U.S. News says its rankings are based purely on academic excellence, but the actual categories are mostly based on a handful of factors: The quality of schools’ matriculating student bodies, how schools are regarded by high school counselors and similar institutions, how large faculties are on a per-student basis. Those factors in turn can be manipulated by schools with money to spend.

A famous example of this approach to boosting college prestige is George Washington University. As recounted by The Atlantic in 2012, GWU president Stephen Trachtenberg improved the school’s standing by, among other things, doubling the cost of attendance in order make the school appear more elite.

“People equate price with the value of their education,” Trachtenberg said. He didn’t waste the money, though, instead pursuing an aggressive building policy, tossing up new buildings and adding amenities like cafes. By doing so, he was able to lure in more of the top-scoring students the school coveted, while also improving the school’s reputation among peers, two key factors in raising the school’s ranking even if its core academics were no different. GWU peaked at 51 on U.S. News’ rankings, before dropping back in 2012 after the school was caught using a more blunt method to improve its standing: fudging the academic data of incoming students.

Desire to rise in U.S. News rankings may be encouraging other trends in college admissions. For example, earlier this year GWU became the most prominent school to make standardized tests like the SAT or ACT optional for incoming students. While the school describes this as intended to improve diversity and attract quality applicants who may otherwise be discouraged by lower test scores, the move has another benefit: It raises the school’s average SAT score, which is a factor measured by U.S. News. (RELATED: George Washington University Dumps SAT, ACT)

The full top 20 list for national universities is below:

1. Princeton University

2. Harvard University

3. Yale University

4. (tie) Columbia University

4. Stanford University

4. University of Chicago

7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

8. Duke University

9. University of Pennsylvania

10. (tie) California Institute of Technology

10. Johns Hopkins University

12. (tie) Dartmouth College

12. Northwestern University

14. Brown University

15. (tie) Cornell University

15. Vanderbilt University

15. Washington University in St. Louis

18. (tie) Rice University

18. University of Notre Dame

20. University of California, Berkeley

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