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College Rankings - Proceed With Caution

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

It's understandable that the college rankings, especially the ones from that notorious, otherwise-defunct news magazine, have an outsized influence on perception of quality. The simplicity of numbered rankings or rating scores is appealing. I find myself googling things like "best hiking boots" all the time, and trusting the guidance of the Wirecutter, the Strategist, or a specialized web site. Image from USC Daily Trojan

When it comes to colleges, though, we're talking about a set of experiences, not a "vacuum cleaner," and an individual's interaction with a community and its structure. When you really think about it, what sense does it make to suggest that there is a "best" college? For whom?

One of the parallels I like to draw is with that same news magazine's ranking of vacations (they rank a lot of stuff these days-- it's their sole purpose and source of revenue.) They state unequivocally that the best family vacation is to be had in Orlando at the Magic Kingdom. Really? The next five highest-ranked locales on the list are: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Washington DC, and Lake Tahoe. Each of these locations represents a totally different set of family values, personalities, and enthusiasm for the outdoors, museums and monuments, or large crowds waiting to hear robots sing to them as they ride in a boat.

In my opinion, at least, it's pretty easy to see that as human beings, we all prefer different kinds of experiences in our leisure time, and there are numerous factors in a personality (or group of personalities in a family) and individual locations and experiences that may or may not mesh. The family that loves spending time in Yosemite really might not want to ride Space Mountain. Would they change their entire focus because a magazine ranked Orlando higher?

The great strength of the American higher education landscape is its diversity. There are nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions, and about 2,800 four year colleges. Among all those, there is certainly an option for just about anyone in any stage of their education and with just about any level of resources.

To paraphrase the former President of a college in Connecticut I cited above, there are hundreds colleges and universities in America that offer much more than any engaged student can take advantage of in four years. He adds, "It will be up to the student to make something out of those opportunities, and it will not be the school that makes something out of the student." One of the many problematic implications of a rankings focus is that implied notion that a student is a passive participant, somehow enhanced by the external validation of a sweatshirt or bumper sticker, rather than an active agent in their education and life.

As I am fond of saying, there are about 300 colleges that make the list of most frequently applied to by students from beyond their immediate neighborhood. We can allow ourselves to be just a little bit snobby (top 10% of 4-year colleges, if you want to look at it that way) and still have a working list of those schools that has something for every traditional college-aged student who wants to go to college and will graduate from high school. We can expand that list further for specific, specialized academic programs and other student needs.

All those places in the list I propose have everything an engaged student needs to get to their next step, including engaged teaching faculty (the surplus of PhD's in this country creates a wildly competitive market for any reasonably compensated job with tenure possibility.) There is room to choose options based on self-knowledge and preference, so that the student will have the best chance to thrive and grow in the directions they envision (and ideally, in exciting ways that they can't yet imagine.)

The idea of a college ranking undermines the reality of the complexity of individuals looking for education, as well as the diversity of those institutions, in favor of superficial, manipulable metrics (read more on this below.) Unfortunately, the rankings have come to have a huge influence on public opinion and college administration priorities. Beyond our borders, the rankings are often presented as authoritative, and access to more nuanced information might be limited (and in other education systems, the idea of a hierarchy of universities might make more sense than it does here.) I have a lot of empathy for folks outside the US attempting to make sense of choices here, and the rankings understandably drive attention and focus for many in that scenario. However, it's a basic truth that the factors that shape the most popular US rankings often have little or nothing to do with the factors that shape a quality undergraduate experience.

Just as the folks who planned a Santa Fe or Alaska trip wouldn't be better off in DC because a ranking said they would, the student who is happy as a clam at Hamilton or Rhodes isn't missing out by not attending a perennially top ranked place like Stanford. I am pretty sure that a student who loves and is intellectually engaged at Bennington, Bard, Skidmore or Sarah Lawrence would not be happy at the very highly ranked CalTech. Though the pull of rankings is strong, there are students, who know themselves and have confidence in their choices, that turn down highly-ranked places like Dartmouth for places like Macalester or Colorado College that feel like better fits. So many students, though, internalize the goal of getting into a place that is highly ranked, which often corresponds with an admission rate that makes getting in unpredictable at best. A lot of damage is done to our honest perception of institutions, and to student self-confidence, by focus on rankings. Just look at the /ApplyingToCollege subreddit to see what obsession with rankings looks like when one's identity is tied to it. It's not healthy or productive.

Putting it another way, as the former President of Reed College once said, "Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies." It's a much better approach to celebrate the diversity and quality of institutions we have, and to support students' empowered choosing of the places that will best serve them. --MM

Further insight

There is much more to say, but beyond this introduction, I think the best way to investigate further, if you're so inclined, is to consult other sources tackling the rankings and their impact.

Here, I've curated a selection of articles that offer insight into various aspects of the rankings: how they work, the ways they are manipulated, the ways they have manipulated the priorities of institutions away from their mission, whether attending a higher-ranked school impacts opportunity after graduation, and ultimately, the way rankings distract from good decision-making in a college search. I hope you find a look through these pieces enlightening and thought-provoking!

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