The annual college rankings published by U.S. News & World Report are a very big deal. Every time a college moves up in the rankings, it experiences a significant bump in applications, which means it can be more selective, which translates into higher average SAT scores for incoming freshmen, less money spent on financial aid and more money spent on student services [source: Ehrenberg]. Even better, all of those factors are part of the formula that the publication uses to determine its rankings, so the school is even more likely to climb higher the next year.
The problem is that college deans have that formula memorized and are constantly trying to game the system to get a better ranking. If U.S. News rewards colleges for spending more and more per student, then it behooves the school to add that new $200-million, LEED-certified student union. Somebody has to pay for that upgrade, of course, so tuitions go up. While that might deter some students, others will be attracted even more by the school's high ranking.
To counter the negative effects of traditional college rankings, President Barack Obama proposed an alternative rating system — to be available by 2015 — that uses "access, affordability and outcomes" as the chief criteria [source: Dept. of Education]. That new system will have a long way to go, however, to unseat U.S. News.