College rankings matter, even if they shouldn’t

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As seen in the May 2 print edition

Jessica Lu, news editor

 “It’s a great school,” I insisted. “It’s known for its incredible economics department. The student-to-faculty ratio is low, so my classes will be small, and lots of employers know its reputation. Not to mention, the school is in the perfect location for internships.”

I could almost see my legitimate and thoughtful reasons evaporating as they left my mouth, wasted on my parents’ inflexible ears. The prospect of attending my dream school seemed to pale next to the idea of attending a better-known, cheaper state school. Months of obsessive research, painstaking essay edits and periodic pangs of anxiety seemed a small price to pay for admission into my top-choice university, but at this very moment, my parents were concerned with a more tangible type of cost. In one last, desperate attempt, I cried out, “It has a high ranking!”

I was finally speaking in the vernacular of my parents; one mention of U.S. News and World Report’s National University Rankings seemed to carry more weight than my previous unremarkable reasons. My parents verified my claim, talked to a few family friends, investigated the school with newfound motivation, and soon shoved the credit card in my hand to make the deposit.

I got my way, and I didn’t feel dirty about it. I was just as obsessed with that list as my parents were. I could recall every school and its corresponding ranking up to a certain point; it became my Bible when I picked out schools to look into, and since then it has affected my perception of schools. Granted, I did not swallow its numbers as easily as my parents did, especially when choosing to apply to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (#28) over Vanderbilt (#17), and Emory (#20) over John Hopkins (#13), and Cornell (#16) over Dartmouth (#10). The numbers began to fade as I formed my own conclusions from websites, alumni feedback and college visits. But before all of that, as a lost student fed only with names that had “Ivy League” and “UC” attached, where else was I to turn?

I’m not alone, as it turns out: CBS cited an Arts & Science Group study that revealed that two-thirds of applicants last winter used college rankings to decide where to apply. The top lists used included U.S. News, Princeton Review and Forbes, but there are plenty of other lists floating around on the internet, waiting to be eaten up by anxious applicants like myself.

As editor-in-chief Mabel Kabani pointed out last issue, the basis for these rankings is flawed. And I know that. What truly matters in a school varies from student to student, but the things that mattered for me―as summarized at the beginning of this article―did little to move my parents, who were convinced I could find similar resources elsewhere. When choosing where to apply, how else could I instantly differentiate schools like MIT (#7) and Washington University at St. Louis (#14) to my parents, my peers and myself―when they both have reputable business schools?

Steve Cohen, co-author of the college admissions book Getting In!, wrote an article for Forbes Magazine, saying “college reputation has been hijacked by rankings.” For better or worse, he’s right. Whether or not rankings can be interpreted as the truth, they undeniably shape the admissions and employment circles. It was the easiest way to convince my parents to think of my expensive choice as a good investment, even though there were other reasons readily available. Yet it could easily have backfired, particularly if my school of choice had a relatively low ranking. All things considered, a huge weight, whether beneficial or detrimental, is placed on these college rankings. After all, as Cohen notes, “A college’s brand value―whether that school’s name will be recognized and open employers’ doors―is a reasonable measure of return on investment.”

Anxious applicants and their even more anxious parents aren’t the only consumers of these lists. Employers, too, use these lists in a variety of ways. Schools with low acceptance rates and therefore higher rankings (as the first weighs into the second) are useful to companies, who assume the institution has already weeded out less qualified candidates. Simply put, students “good enough” to squeeze into Harvard’s skinny acceptance rate (5.9 percent for the class of 2018) are probably good enough to work for the company. Lists also serve as a shortcut to comparing two otherwise similar candidates―perhaps the kid with a 3.7 GPA from Notre Dame (#17) has more value than the kid with a 3.7 at Boston College (#31), at least to the person striving to make a decision. And let’s not forget Cohen’s sentiments that brand recognition is important: the kid with a degree from Princeton (#1) will simply get the interview before the kid from…well, #1 is pretty hard to beat.

But in this game of college admissions, there’s one more player to be considered: the seemingly innocent colleges themselves, who are ready to pounce when no one is looking. On the surface, the universities claim no rankings list can determine if the college is a good fit (a valuable point, by the way). Yet, strangely enough, they can’t live without them. Colleges care about these lists a great deal; in fact, some admissions officers have been accused of misreporting information to boost their rankings, most notably Claremont McKenna (#10 Liberal Arts Colleges). Besides this serving as an alarming indicator that the rankings can’t be taken too seriously, it signals an even more painful truth: lots of people care about these rankings, and probably too much.

Ultimately, I do agree with Kabani and her sentiment that these rankings mislead everyone, but I can’t ignore their importance. No one else―parents, employers, colleges―seems to be waving them off. Choosing a school based off rankings may work out because there are so many incredible, highly-ranked schools with different, quirky personalities. Or it may not work out. What’s best to do is to acknowledge that these lists exist, thoroughly research any schools of interest, and actually talk to students who attend. If this isn’t enough to point to an obvious decision, like in my parents’ case, then maybe it’s time to play the rankings card.

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