In the summer of 1994, I interned at U.S. News & World Report, where I was assigned to collect data for the magazine’s annual college rankings, just beginning to grow in influence. A few years later, when I started reporting for The Chronicle, college-enrollment managers and presidents asked me about the methodology employed by U.S. News and just how much they could manipulate the rankings by attracting higher-caliber students. Their approach for moving up in the rankings was relatively simple: Offer financial aid to smart students, whether they needed the money or not.
The merit-aid arms race was in full force by the start of the new millennium. But in 2000, some 53 percent of institutional aid was still going to needy students. As a result, few higher-education leaders worried about the consequences.