The Invisible and Pervasive Power of College Rankings

This article is inspired by and quotes from Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a book about O’Neil’s growing disillusionment with the data economy as she learned that data can be used to fuel toxic feedback loops. This post is the first in a series DataCrunch will be doing based on the examples cited in her book.

 

When preparing to apply to college, one of the first references that people often turn to are lists of college rankings. Almost every newspaper/journal has one – Forbes, Princeton Review, U.S. News. They are a big deal within higher education, with students and parents often referring to the lists as a point of reference when choosing where to apply. But the scope of influence goes beyond that. Alumni and teachers will also look at these lists to decide if they want to apply or donate money. These simple rankings of colleges have become somewhat of a bible in higher education that destines a school to fly or flop – all based on what their ranking is.

Does this sound scary to you? It should. It’s hard to truly understand the amount of power we give to these lists until you step back and look at how far the cycle of impact spans: The process of applying for college has become so much more than just “applying.” High schools will start prepping students their freshman year to be wary of their grades, ranked GPA, AP scores, extracurriculars, volunteer work, honors society, SAT scores, ACT scores…. And when high schoolers are stressing out about how much there is to do, they surely don’t think back to those college rankings that they started reading with your parents for fun. But the truth is that they are the center point of a vicious feedback loop that now controls our higher education system.

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Why are Textbooks so Expensive?

As Drop/Add week comes to an end, students are finishing up one of the most dreaded activities of the semester: Acquiring textbooks. Whether you have already purchased all your textbooks or are heading to Broad Street to pick up the final ones, you will all end the week having dealt with one of the worst cases of sticker shock possible. Because while the mile-long line is annoying, nothing is more horrifying than seeing your purchase total turn to a three-digit number for the nine textbooks your English class requires. Of course, there are cheaper options: you can buy used or rent new/used copies, borrow, lend, sellback after buying, have parents pay, pay part, pay full. But sellback can be difficult and asking parents difficult to navigate, especially if the money situation is tight. And with the prices sitting at a cringe-worthy level no matter what, paying for textbooks has become a serious concern for most college students.

Have you ever wondered why you’re textbooks are so expensive? Even normal books aren’t always cheap, but textbook prices have soared far above that level. There is some disparity in data, but on average it is reported that textbook prices have risen 800% in the last 30 years.  And with choosing to not buy a textbook possibly hurting your grade, it poses questions about a rigged college system that favors those with money, even after you get past the golden gates. So what’s causing prices to be so high?

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