Steven Colbert recently had a segment on college rankings. Colbert expressed disappointment that his alma mater, Dartmouth, did not rank well in the Washington Monthly rankings of college effectiveness. Washington Monthly focuses on the graduation rates of low-income students. Colbert complained that Dartmouth has plenty of social mobility, as you could enter a plutocrat and graduate an oligarch.
Despite the lighthearted treatment, a serious issue surrounds the issue of the perverse incentives created by the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) rankings. Inputs dominate the USNWR rankings--how much money the universities have, and the SAT scores of incoming students, etc.
But a more appropriate ranking system would focus on outputs, not inputs. Student learning gains should be the focus of judging the effectiveness of colleges. The University of Texas System pioneered the use and publication of such gain scores on a broad test of cognitive skills. The results: the value added champions were UT-San Antonio, which sits at the bottom of the USNWR rankings. Strangely enough, the highest rated university according to USNWR, does not do so well in the value added department.
Arizona, with two universities ranked in the lower part of the second tier and one in the 4th tier of the USNWR rankings, has every incentive to adopt a system similar to that of UT. Arizona universities may never buy their way to the top of the heap, but they might be able to teach their way there, given the proper incentives.
U.S. News and World Report: College Rankings
Washington Monthly: Playing With Numbers
Goldwater Institute: Does Spending on Higher Education Drive Economic Growth?