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Best Colleges Badge: We Sustain Its Existence
September 19, 2011 - 9:45pm

Initially, I had planned on doing my best to write a balanced view of the money-making-machine known as the U.S. News & World Report College Ranking & Lists. For a prospective student, the ranking data contains information about tuition, total enrollment, acceptance rate, first-year student retention and 6-year graduation rates. I thought, well, at least there's some data that students can use even if the ranking numbers are a tad bit arbitrary and biased. As I was surfing through the rankings data, I noticed two columns of data that were not displaying numerical information. I clicked on the the "compass" graphic and was taken to a sales page that offered up "expanded profiles" for the "best deal" price of $24.95 for a year of access. While I really couldn't care less about the actual value of the U.S. News rankings, I take umbrage with the cash cow that it has become. And, we are complicit because we sustain its existence.

Last Tuesday's Inside Higher Ed article about the drop in participation amongst higher education presidents gave me hope that some are finally ceasing their willful engagement in this supremely questionable endeavor. However, a recent discussion on a higher education web developers listserv reinforced the fact that some still find the "badge" to be valuable. In fact, due to the exorbitant fees that U.S. News charges to display the "best badge," some schools have gotten creative with their web marketing. Instead of paying the $1,000 cost (web use only, 12 months) to display the award badge, some higher education web developers display a graphic of the cover of the U.S. News magazine as a way to indicate their ranking status. By the way, the cost for unlimited electronic use of the best badge for only a year is $5,500. Imagine if a majority of the 1,600 schools in the U.S. News rankings list paid for either the limited web use or even the unlimited option. It is potentially a multi-million dollar operation.

So here's the rub: We sustain the very ranking system that we criticize. That's unfortunate and fairly hypocritical. What really bothers me is that we then sit back and let U.S. News charge prospective students and their families for the privilege of accessing information that we should be giving to students for free. For unlimited use of the best colleges badge, it will cost a school $8,200 for a year. U.S. News debuted their rankings list in 1983. Since then, we've been legitimizing its existence every time we "pay to display."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Catharine Hill's article on "Diversity and Rankings." Hill states that "[ranking lists] aren't going away." Fortunately, these types of rankings and their "pay to play" model can go away, but only if we stop paying for their existence.

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