An Interview with Taryn Hochleitner: Are the Best Colleges Getting Better? Or Just More Expensive?

May 25, 2012 by

Taryn Hochleitner

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Taryn , you and Rick Hess just completed a new study that found that the number of “top tiered” colleges/universities has increased. How do you account for this?

It’s hard to say for sure, but its important not to ignore the fact that these rankings are based solely on front-end admissions data and are nothing but a numbers game. Rick and I observe that two of Barron’s key components—high school GPA and college selectivity—today mean something different than they did two decades ago.

Since 1991, high school students nationwide have been earning better grades, but they haven’t actually been improving their aptitude according to standardized tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This means that high school transcripts of incoming freshman look more impressive than in the past. What’s more, individual applicants are applying to more schools than ever, thanks to a more streamlined, web-enabled application process, and motivated by the perception that getting into college is becoming more difficult, so more applications will improve their odds.

Thus, high school grade inflation and a growing number of applications per pupil have inflated the rankings.

  1. We all know, (at least most of the insightful people know ) that high school GPA’s are often grossly inflated. How does this impact on college admissions?

One of the factors Barron’s incorporates in its rakings calculations is the high school GPA required for admission to an institution. Since more students nationwide are getting better grades, more of them are eligible for these selective schools – and freshman student bodies look more impressive on paper — making the club of most selective colleges not as exclusive as it seems.

3) There is a lot of discussion right now about “student loans “. How will this impact college choice in the future- or will it ?

College “cost” is a complicated, often misunderstood concept. Many are working to improve our financial aid structure in higher education, and help students better understand how much they’ll be paying for college and what they’re getting themselves into when they take out loans. That said, students and parents often go to great lengths to figure out how to pay for an expensive school rather than miss out on a chance to attend. Indeed, Student Poll has reported that 67 percent of college-bound students are willing to pay more than they can afford for an institution with a “prestigious academic reputation.” In the end, whether the student loan discussion will impact college choice remains to be seen, but it will be difficult to disentangle ourselves from our rankings and prestige obsession when it comes to higher education.

4) It seems to me that a good lecture is worth a lot more than sitting in front of a lap top or computer for hours. Do these “competitive colleges” provide information as to this pedagogical factor?

It depends where you look for it. While this information isn’t readily apparent in the rankings categories, Barron’s does include in-depth profiles of each of the colleges it ranks. But, its hard to imagine that students will read through the fine print in all 1500+ entries to find the best option suited for them. What matters is that this information isn’t what people are paying attention to when they choose a higher ranking college over another. That’s why new avenues to helping students choose the right college based on factors that matter to them, like CollegeBoard’s new “Big Future,” are so important.

5) You and Rick Hess are about to discuss this situation- what impact does this shift have for higher education in America?

The components we traditionally use to determine a school’s prestige, academic standards for admission and “selectivity,” have changed over time, and will continue change as the dynamics of higher education evolve. Many are becoming aware that that our current comparative metrics aren’t good enough. What’s more, the influx in schools in the top category is overwhelming; seeing such a large list may lead students to seek other ways to distinguish between these schools. With more demand for this type of information, we can be hopeful that schools and college guides will begin to make this information more easily available.

6) If Barron’s or some other source rate a college highly, does that give them free rein to charge inordinate amounts of tuition and fees?

The problem is that these colleges aren’t punished by consumers for posting a higher sticker price. In fact, its just the opposite. Consider the case of Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, a small liberal arts school that raised its tuition and fees by almost 18 percent in 2000 in an attempt to boost its appeal. That year, Ursinus received two hundred more applications than the year before, and within four years the size of its freshman class had grown by 35 percent. The lesson learned is that families associate high price with high quality – and families are willing to pay for prestige.

7) How much is ” prestige ” really worth? To say that you went to Yale or Harvard or Dartmouth or Princeton or Columbia ?

It depends on how you look at it. There’s no doubt that many of the top tier schools provide excellent instruction and quality learning experiences, but that doesn’t mean that lower-ranked schools don’t provide the same. When it comes to rankings, “prestige” doesn’t automatically imply a better education, it’s a marker that a school has high standards and is in demand. To make it worthwhile, prestige must be partnered with evidence of high quality academic opportunities and outcomes. That said, we can’t rule out the workforce question.

Last year USA Today reported that an Ivy League degree still gives you an advantage over others in the eyes of most employers and gives you an edge in terms of starting salary. Let’s remember, however, that the Ivy League only contains 8 schools – there are 79 others that currently occupy the same “most competitive” ranking. When more and more schools are considered to be the “best,” it becomes even more important to determine whether the exclusivity a student pays for is actually meaningful.

8) Are there colleges and universities that have truly increased their academic quality? And how do you measure or define that ?

When looking at the rankings and the rise in “most competitive” schools, its important to remember that academic requirements for admission and the academic quality of an institution are distinct. So, even if some colleges have tightened their admissions requirements and incoming freshmen look more impressive on paper, it doesn’t mean that the quality of instruction has improved. For example, an AEI study done a few years ago found that graduation rates vary dramatically between colleges and universities in the same tier in Barron’s rankings. While graduation rates certainly aren’t a perfect measure of quality, this variability points to the fact that equal inputs (i.e. similar admissions standards) does not guarantee equal outputs.

9) What‘s the biggest take away from your study?

Ultimately, the lesson from all of this is the importance of increased transparency in high education. Though we can work on reforming the types of rankings that are out there, what’s more important is making sure readers understand what they really mean. Choosing a college is a high-stakes decision, and it’s critical that students and parents be informed consumers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.