Every September, when summer gives way to the dawn of a new school year, U.S. News & World Report releases its annual college rankings list. These rankings, first published 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 Colleges” rankings issue that sells about 40 percent more copies than the magazine’s standard weekly issues, according to the Washington Monthly. On average, over 8 million people annually visit the U.S. News’s 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. However, the system, with its publications 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? 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 lists act like teachers who grade essays solely based on grammar and punctuation rather than the actual content of the assignment. Instead, rankings should strive to delve deeper into the complexities of the culture and nature of particular schools; this way, students will not only 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 virtually 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 school that best fits them. Because of the importance that people put on college rankings, schools that strive to go to the top often focus only on aspects that will be reflected in rankings, such as class sizes, rather than other aspects, like internship opportunities, which don’t factor in, according to The New York Times. Even worse, The Washington Post reports, is that many colleges send in false data to magazines in the hopes of improving their rankings (the most recent incident being related to Claremont-McKenna). When prestigious schools have to sacrifice their moral integrity to move up a few numbers on an unofficial list published by 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 more highly of a person attending a higher-ranked institution 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’s 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 solely off of numbers while ignoring the subjective preference of each applicant in the world is oftentimes unfair to students, many of whose parents believe that the list published by U.S. News & World Report website is absolute law.