American universities whose business it is to rate their students on performance found the tables turned when a private, non-profit research organisation evaluated them for the first time. The state-by-state "report card," issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, found that most states earned only average scores and that the majority were below average in affordability.
But the report is less conspicuous for its findings than for its methodology, which was immediately denounced as too simplistic by associations of universities and colleges. They were particularly critical of the use of letter grades, like those given to students, to compare individual states.
"You really have to put this in context," said Travis Reindl, director of state policy for the American Association of State Universities and Colleges. "The danger is that this would be interpreted with a level of sophistication that it's not intended to have."
The easy-to-read 188-page report was short on text and long on graphics. It rated higher education in each of the 50 states with letter grades, ranging from A, the highest, to F, for failing.
Mr Reindl's organisation, which represents public universities, responded in kind, giving the effort a mediocre C for its approach, although it also awarded a B-plus for stimulating discussion about the topic. It pointed out that some of the statistics used to calculate the letter grades date from 1992.
"We're getting better all the time in American higher education in how quickly and how accurately we collect information about what we do, but the fact remains that there's almost always a time lag, and there are always going to be different ways to slice your numbers," Mr Reindl said. Readers, including policymakers, he said, did not know how old the data really was.
"It's dangerous to engage specific policy discussions when you have such unreliable statistics," Mr Reindl said.
The report also rated states on how quickly students graduated, taking as a benchmark the expectation that most would finish in five years. That was no longer common, Mr Reindl said. Many American students now took longer than five years to earn their degrees, he said.
But Patrick Callan, president of the California-based centre that prepared the study, said its main goal was to "be an impetus for state leaders to address some of the higher education policy challenges they face" - if not necessarily to recommend solutions. "Certainly there is no single blueprint that can ensure that a state will excel in higher education," Mr Callan said.
"What we were really trying to do was give states a clear picture of where they are relative to all the other states, particularly in the area that really affects opportunity and achievement," William Doyle, one of the authors, said. "The grades are very much a tool to get the attention of the states, to really focus them very clearly in a way that everyone can understand. What this report does is de-mystify higher education."