Sometimes relatively insignificant measures can assume an absurdly disproportionate importance.
For decades U.S. News and World Reports has been ranking the country’s top universities and colleges. These rankings have taken on great importance to college administrators, who routinely crow about moving up in the lists and who stay awake at night worrying about dropping down a notch or two. One of the qualities the magazine measures in compiling these lists is “selectivity” – that is, how hard it is for high school seniors to get admitted. The more selective the college, the better. And one of the dominant methods by which U.S. News and World Reports calculates selectivity is tracking the percentage of total applicants who are admitted.
Consequently, one of the easiest ways for schools to move up in the rankings is to do whatever they can to attract more applicants. Having more applicants lowers the percentage of acceptances and makes the school appear to be more selective, which in turn attracts a greater number of (status-seeking) applicants the next year, which reduces the percentage of those accepted once again, all of which which raises the institution yet higher in the rankings. So a single, easily manipulated measure affects an important (if deeply flawed) ranking system, which then feeds back to influence that measure and the ranking system still further.
Manipulation of these rankings came to mind when a report recently hit the internet about how a remarkably high percentage of nonprofits, including those raising lots and lots of money, report spending nothing – zero! – on fundraising expenses on their IRS 990 tax forms. Continue reading