A sobering way of examining university ranking exercises is to put a price on the goal of getting into the Top-20 (or Top whatever) in a certain list. Here's an Inside Higher Ed news story about a recent paper that looked into the price for the University of Rochester, which is "ranked consistently in the mid-thirties" in the US News list, to break into the Top 20 (the paper itself is available at a price that I am not willing to pay ;-):
If it wanted to move into the top 20, Rochester would have to do a lot on several of the various factors U.S. News uses to rank colleges. To move up one spot because of faculty compensation, Rochester would have to increase the average faculty salary by about $10,000. To move up one spot on resources provided to students, it would have to spend $12,000 more per student. Those two things alone would cost $112 million a year.
To get into the top 20, Rochester would also have to increase its graduation rate by 2 percent, enroll more students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, get more alumni to give, cut the acceptance rate and increase the SAT and ACT scores of incoming students. Some of those things, like offering aid money to highly qualified students, might further increase the expense.
But that’s not all, the paper argues. Rochester would still have to do well in the rankings magazine’s “beauty contest.”
Because 15 percent of the ranking is based on reputation among other administrators, even massive expenditures year after year and huge leaps in student quality and graduation would not be enough. The reputation score as judged by its peers would need to increase from 3.4 to 4.2 on a scale of 5, something that has only a .01 percent chance of happening, the paper said.