It was really all about sex—or, more precisely, the prospect of having sex once he got to college. A friend and his son were visiting USC, their third campus in three days, when the kid’s criteria for choosing a school became clear. He had specified “big, out west, and preferably warm,” while his father had pushed for “highly ranked.” Watching his son gaze at the backwards-walking student guide, he whispered, “The girls here are pretty good-looking.” The 18-year-old didn’t take his eyes off the aspiring actress and replied, “Yeah, but they don’t smile as much as they do at ASU.” He matriculated at Arizona State.

He dropped out less than two years later. His social life was terrific, but the school wasn’t a great fit for other reasons. Leaving college or transferring isn’t the exception but the norm: fully 41 percent of students who start at a four-year college don’t graduate from that school within six years. The dropout rate for community college students exceeds 71 percent.

I recently shared the story of my friend’s son—and these statistics—with neighbors. They had just returned from a 12-school college tour and were in the throes of college-admissions madness. The parents (even more than their high school senior son) were eager to share their impressions of the various schools: too liberal, not liberal enough, jockey, druggie. And they wanted to learn any “tricks” that might enhance the kid’s chances of an Ivy League admission.

It wasn’t long before they began rattling off various colleges’ rankings. Both U.S. News and the Wall Street Journal had recently released their annual lists, on which a college’s ranking is almost as important as the prospect of a good education or the availability of scholarship money. This priority wasn’t irrational: with the cost of private college tuition exceeding $250,000, and the price of many state universities topping $100,000, focusing on a college’s ranking is a reasonable proxy for brand awareness. And that prestige—or just name recognition, in the case of lower-ranked schools—is a factor in helping graduates get higher-paying jobs.

Acknowledging this major expense, both U.S. News and the Journal have changed the criteria that determine ranking. They now place greater emphasis on “outcomes” (salaries after graduation) than on inputs (such as selectivity in admission). To their credit, they allow users (for a fee) to weight the various criteria by importance, generating their own customized rankings.

Unfortunately, the data collected about most colleges still miss the boat, at least in terms of helping kids and their parents make better choices. Major media outlets deliver remarkably similar rankings. The top 10 schools on each list are 80 percent identical. Expand the U.S. News list to the top 14 schools, and all 10 of the WSJ schools appear. Even fewer differences exist between top 50 lists.

I’d prefer to know which schools do better at preparing students for real-world challenges. Are they acquiring skills and information that will increase their chances of becoming productive, thoughtful, responsible citizens? Specifically, I’d like someone to assess and rank colleges on four additional criteria:

Grade inflation. What’s the grade distribution at the college? Too many recent graduates actually believe that the high grades they got in college reflect high-quality work. Grade inflation is not just a problem at elite institutions, but across many colleges. In 1969, only 7 percent of grades awarded were above A-; in 2013, that figure was 41 percent.

Four-year graduation rate. In computing its rankings, U.S. News uses the percentage of students per class who graduate in six years. Taking that long to finish adds significant cost, and there are lots of reasons why students need more time. For some, it’s cost; for others, it’s bureaucracy. (Changing majors can mean taking new prerequisites; and more than 70 percent of all undergraduates change their initial majors.) Families deserve realistic transparency.

Diversity and service. Media rankings typically make an effort to identify racial and economic diversity on campus, but no one even pretends to address political and intellectual diversity. One appropriate metric would be how many students are veterans and how many graduates go on to serve in the military or in the Peace Corps.

Student indulgence. How easy is it to satisfy a school’s distribution requirements? I spent the first half of my undergraduate career at the U.S. Naval Academy, which indulged student whims hardly at all. My second half was spent at Brown, which had no distribution requirements but noticeably higher academic expectations. I valued both enormously, but which indulges students more? And which better prepares graduates for life in the real world?

Too many students—including the sex-starved kid who went west—base their college choices on frivolities and amenities. Which are the best party schools, or which colleges with the fewest “dodgeball victims”—yes, there is such a listing—are often more easily researched than whether there is a foreign language or math requirement for graduation. Sadly, parents are not much more discerning. They push their children toward schools a few slots higher in the rankings. Many more students, and their families, would make better college choices if rankings included categories that captured schools’ real differences from one another, and how much preparation for the real world students can expect.

Photo: Roberto Michel/iStock


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