Inside Higher Ed, among other sources, has been reporting on several incidents of institutions gaming the US News and World Report ranking system. No one should be surprised, today's report says, especially when the stakes are so high. These incidents dovetail nicely with my own recent thoughts about college expectations for my kids. My brother-in-law is visiting this week and we took a stroll around campus while Mr. Geeky was in a meeting. He asked how much it cost to go to fancy pants liberal arts college. The total price tag, with room and board, is about $50k. He wanted to know why the hell it cost so much and what makes going to a place that costs that much so much better than a state school. For the record, he has 4 kids to get through school (10 years from now), with a huge amount of overlap, so cost is going to be a huge factor, as it is for many parents.
One key reason people want to go to expensive schools, of course, are all the intangible benefits: the connections you make, the name recognition, etc. I agree that the cost seems way out of sync, but it also gets you some tangible benefits as well. At an exclusive SLAC, you won't have a class larger than 40 or 50 people (and those are the lecture classes). Most classes will have 15 or so people. That means your opportunities for engaging in class discussion, for the teacher knowing you and keeping an eye on your progress are vastly increased. Your faculty will be from "better" schools (they cost more as a result, though their pay is still less than other professionals). The faculty will also be more available for one-on-one consultation and in theory, will also be more focused on teaching and learning rather than research (though this is debatable). Even at schools like Harvard and Yale, one could argue that having the opportunity to work with the great minds of our time is a privilege worth paying for.*
So here's the thing, yes, state schools can be just fine for many people. Mr. Geeky attended state school and went on to get a Ph.D. from said state school and ended up teaching at a presitigous liberal arts college. There are thousands of success stories like that. But it's also true that some students would be lost in a large state school population and would not only not thrive, but might even fail. I knew that of myself after visiting a large state school I was considering. Not only did I not check out any of the classes (because my hosts were skipping classes), but I spent the entire time there really drunk. I figured I would spend 4 years drunk if I went there.
Rankings don't tell you that. They might help you begin to make a list, but there are many other factors to consider. Location, demographics, class size, curriculum, general philosophy. Going to a school ranked below the top 25 isn't going to ruin your life. It might not catapult you into that fabulous political career, but it will probably allow you a pretty good life.
*Of course, with many of those great minds' lectures and course materials being made freely available, one can forgo the expense of Harvard and simply take advantage of the free offerings while attending state school.