COLLEGE RANKINGS: Democratized College Knowledge for Whom?

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Abstract

Every fall the opening of the academic year is heralded by an ever increasing number of newsmagazines that rank colleges. In addition to the standard bearers of this market — U.S. News and World Report and Money — magazines that offer their readers advice on how to choose a college are proliferating. For example, one can find lists of the “best colleges” and “best buys” accompanied on newstands by the “top jock schools” (Sports Illustrated), the “best party schools” (Playboy), and the “best colleges for Asian Americans” (A. Magazine). This paper is a study of who uses the contentious and seemingly influential newsmagazine rankings of U.S. colleges and universities, and an analysis of what types of freshmen find these rankings useful in making their choice of college. Equally important, it is a discussion of why reputations are important and how they can serve as a hedge against uncertainty. Finally, the paper provides an analysis of the for-profit sector's encroachment into a critical educational equity arena—college access—embedded within a discussion of whether widely available college rankings result in democratized college knowledge.

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