Kevin Carey on The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.
The whole apparatus of selective college admissions is designed to deliberately confuse things that exist with things that don’t. Many of the most prestigious colleges are an order of magnitude wealthier and more selective than the typical university. These are the primary factors driving their annual rankings at or near the top of the U.S. News list of “best” colleges. The implication is that the differences in the quality of education they provide are of a similar size. There is no evidence to suggest that this is remotely true.
Not directly. But there are market tests. Academic departments compete for high-achieving faculty (there is life after tenure, if you're willing to forswear all else and work 90 hours a week).  And U.S. News continue to sell those guides -- thirty years or so of publication suggests perceived value in them.
When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning. This is understandable, because the alternative is admitting that many selective institutions are not intrinsically excellent; they were just lucky enough to get into the business of selecting the best and brightest before everyone else.
That's incomplete. Too few of the supposedly less-selective institutions make the effort to raise their profile.  And those that do, such as Miami of Ohio, will apologize for seeming to be snobby.  And thus do too many students pass through higher education without intellectual challenge.

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