College rankings misinform applicants, parents

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As seen in the April 10 print edition

Mabel Kabani, editor-in-chief

 Every September when summer ends and school begins, U.S. News & World Report releases its annual college rankings list. These rankings, published first in 1983, have become the major claim to fame of this otherwise defunct magazine. Similar to the likes of Forbes’ “50 Most Valuable Sports Teams” and People Magazine’s “Top 100 Most Beautiful Women” lists, U.S. News & World Report releases an “America’s Best College” rankings issue sells about 40 percent more than the magazine’s standard weekly issues, according to the Washington Monthly. On average each year, over 8 million people visit the U.S. News’ website when it releases its new college rankings.

The method behind creating this list is vague enough so that no average reader can quite figure out how these colleges are ranked, but the system, with its publishing of numbers and statistics, seems clear enough to suggest validity. According to the Washington Monthly, a former staff writer who once contributed to the “Best Colleges” issue said that the college rankings are “completely ridiculous, but they totally pay your salary.”

For the past 15 years, the main ranking categories of the magazine have remained consistent: student selectivity, student retention, graduation rates, academic reputation according to admission deans and university administrators, alumni generosity and faculty quality rated by pay and number of degrees. In short, the most perfect and highest ranking school will be one that is rich, hard to get into, hard to flunk out of and has a spotless reputation.

However, what these lists fail to do is actually inform the readers of how much students learn in college. Of course, the list does give parents and students a rough idea of the selectivity and educational integrity of a college, and the magazine does a good job of distinguishing top schools, like Harvard and the University of Chicago, from schools about a hundred spaces down, like East-West University and Fort Lewis College, but should schools like Middlebury be about 30 spots away from a school like Wesleyan? Should UCLA be higher up in the rankings than NYU? When it comes to broad general categories, the ranking system does fairly well in separating the top tier schools from their counterparts; however, is this ranking system, which is based on money, reputation and selectivity, really legitimate enough to decide such a huge gap between rankings of schools such as Washington University in St. Louis and Emory? Should a student really decide where he or she wants to spend the next four years of his or her life based on a numerical value that is slightly higher than that of another, simply because one school has a higher average SAT score of incoming freshman than the other? I don’t think so.

Rather than place importance on the culture and quality of education received at a particular college, the rankings take advantage of the anxiety students feel toward college and offer to make the intricate and complicated nature of applying to college appear straightforward. By placing importance on arbitrary numbers such as “alumni giving rank” and six-year graduation rate rather than qualitative information that would give applicants insight into the type of community and learning environment they are about to enter, these ranked lists act like teachers who grade essays based solely on grammar and punctuation rather than the actual content of the assignment. Rankings should strive to delve deeper into the complexities of the culture and nature of particular schools; this way, not only will students have a better understanding of the schools they are applying to, but also that shift away from the importance of numbers pushes colleges to do the same. Though seemingly ideal, it is impossible for lists to take each applicant’s interest into account when ranking a school.

The only solution seems to be for society to move away from placing so much importance on college rankings and for individuals to rely on their own research to determine the best fit school for them. Because of the importance that people put on college rankings, schools that strive to go to the top often focus only on aspects of their school that will be reflected in rankings, such as class sizes, rather than other aspects, like internship opportunities, that don’t factor in, according to the New York Times. What’s even worse, the Washington Post reports, is that many colleges (the most recent and notorious incident is related to Claremont McKenna) send in false data to magazines in the hopes of improving their rankings. When prestigious schools have to sacrifice their moral integrity to move up a few numbers on an unofficial list that is published in one magazine, it is evident that this system of college rankings is not only flawed, but that it also encourages immoral behavior.

Furthermore, rankings put people under the false assumption that the college they attend determines their intelligence, their future and their place in the world. Believing that people will think better of a person attending a higher-ranked school fortifies the myth that the college a person attends is the sole factor in determining his or her success.

With hundreds of undergraduate programs in America that offer more classes, clubs and internships than a student could possibly need, college is more about what an individual makes of the school rather than what the school can do for the individual. There is no period of time in someone’s life in which he/she can spend so much time to develop and work on him/herself. And if a student is actually going to spend so much time and money on a school, why not make sure that it is one that suits the particular preferences of the student? College is such an intricate and personal process that ranking it based solely on numbers, and not the subjective preference of each applicant in the world, is oftentimes unfair to students whose parents believe that the list posted on the U.S. News & World Report website is absolute law.

Instead of only relying on lists and rankings, students should be sitting with their parents and counselors and looking into schools at which they feel they will flourish, using the “America’s Best College” list as a starting point. By applying to and attending a college that you love for what it offers and represents rather than the number it sits at on a list, you as a student and as a person will understand that numbers and ranks do not determine the outcome and success of your life. And by attending a school that has programs that you never tire speaking of, course catalogs that cause you to tingle with excitement and school activities and fight songs that you’ve memorized by heart in the hopes of becoming a spirited individual on campus, you are allowing yourself to love your school and just be happy.

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