When US News & World Report debuted its list of "America's Best Colleges" nearly 30 years ago, the magazine hoped its college rankings would be a game-changer for students and families. But arguably, they've had a much bigger effect on colleges themselves.
Yes, students and families still buy the guide and its less famous competitors by the hundreds of thousands, and still care about a college's reputation. But it isn't students who obsess over every incremental shift on the rankings scoreboard, and who regularly embarrass themselves in the process. It's colleges.
It's colleges that have spent billions on financial aid for high-scoring students who don't actually need the money, motivated at least partly by the quest for rankings glory.
It was a college, Baylor University, that paid students it had already accepted to retake the SAT exam in a transparent ploy to boost the average scores it could report. It's colleges that have awarded bonuses to presidents who lift their school a few slots.