Name a college, and Jessica can tell you its exact numerical ranking in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. Her top choice, she informed me the other day, moved up one notch this year, from No. 47 to No. 46. My younger daughter approaches problems in this extremely methodical way—at age 6, she began making elaborate packing lists for vacation—and with college looming, the U.S. News rankings lent some structure to an overwhelming process. “I know the rankings are subjective, Dad,’’ she said. “But I sort of got fascinated with them.’’ Critics complain that the rankings have far too much influence (see Best columns: The U.S.), and are driving the rapid escalation in tuition: The more amenities a college adds, the more it lures top students; the more top students who apply, the more selective a college can become, the higher in the rankings it rises—and the more it can charge. This is how you get to $55,000 a year.
At the picture-perfect campuses we’ve toured, millions have been poured into dazzling student centers, libraries, and gyms. There are multiple, fully staffed cafeterias, serving sushi, custom-made stir-fry, deli sandwiches, and pasta. Class sizes are small, semesters abroad common. It’s a bit overmuch, but with the American Dream fading (see Controversy of the week), and a globalized, high-tech world becoming more savagely competitive every day, anxious parents cannot resist the educational blackmail. We want our offspring to have every possible advantage, lest they wind up downwardly mobile—and dependent on us until we drop. Still, my glimpse of Jess’s immediate future has left me with a curious form of class envy: I wish I were going, instead of paying.