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July 02, 2012 1:00 PM The Non-Mystery of Most College Ranking Systems

By Keith Humphreys

Anxious parents and their high school-aged children are a big market for university ranking systems. Appearing in a range of books and magazines, ranking systems promise to give the inside scoop on which universities are the best as determined by experts and complex formulae. Armed with this knowledge, you will supposedly not endure the shame of having a child in a university that is ranked only 24th, while your better informed next door neighbor launches his or her offspring into an institution that is ranked 23rd (or maybe even higher!).

But before you plunk down your hard-earned dosh for one of these guides, try something simpler and cheaper: Look at this list of universities with financial endowments over $1 billion. Despite all the allegedly complex equations and inside info, most college ranking systems don’t tell you much more than does this list.

For example, the first 34 national universities on the list of US News and World Report‘s well-known system are all in the billion dollar club. The precise amount of endowment among the billionaire institutions doesn’t correlate perfectly with the specific ranks assigned by USNWR. A few of the billionaire universities are ranked a bit lower than their endowments would suggest (e.g., University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, New York University), and a few are a bit higher (e.g. California Institute of Technology). But broadly speaking, if a university is in the billionaire’s club, it’s going to be well-rated in most supposedly sophisticated ranking systems and if it isn’t, it will not be. The only exceptions to this rule are systems that rate universities in non-traditional ways, for example on gender equity, racial diversity or service to the public.

One could argue whether this is because rich universities are in fact better or because reputation often follows wealth in America (which it didn’t always, age of university used to matter much more). It’s probably a bit of both. But in any event purchasing a book or magazine to learn its expert ranking system is usually a waste of money.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.