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Image from Pexels.

I’m going to be frank: I have a major issue with college rankings.

I used to just be irritated by them; the thought that I would somehow be receiving less of an education if I didn’t go to a “Top 10” school frustrated me and made me feel inadequate throughout the entire college application process.

However, one day during my Propaganda class, we were discussing the college ranking system. We were specifically discussing Reed College, a school that refuses to submit information to U.S. News and has suffered in its rankings as a result.

Let’s put this into perspective. Reed College, a school that has a very high number of alumni with PhDs compared to many top universities, a school whose vision is to produce a lifelong love of learning, is being penalized for not cooperating with U.S. News. What I find even more interesting is the reason why other colleges do not withhold information: it is ranking suicide.

In fact, everything is about position on the rankings nowadays. Claremont McKenna College, a very prestigious school, lied about its SAT scores by ten or twenty points. Students don’t care if your average SAT score is 2100 or 2120, but U.S. News surely does (Ironically, instead of punishing CMC for fabricating its SAT scores, test-optional schools and schools that refuse to submit are penalized instead.).

This system is even more faulty when you look at the methodologies used to calculate these rankings. Take a look at the two major ranking companies, Forbes and U.S. News, and the methods they use.

The Forbes ranking, “America’s Top Colleges,” is composed of five major components: student satisfaction (22.5%), post-graduate success (37.5%), student debt (17.5%), graduation rate (11.25%), and nationally competitive awards (11.25%). I consider it to be the more progressive of the two; it focuses on variables that are incredibly important. However, the measurements are not very reliable. Did you know that 15% of the overall score is based on rankings? Did you know that if you take even an extra year to graduate (for whatever reason), your school will go down in the rankings? Does that seem very reliable? Bonus points for Forbes, though. It removes lying schools from the list for two years.

The U.S. News rankings break schools down into four groups: national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional universities, and regional colleges. It measures undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%), retention (22.5%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (12.5%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (7.5%), and alumni giving rate (5%). I don’t know about you, but I can’t take it seriously. The part that drives me craziest is “undergraduate academic reputation,” where academics from one school are asked about the prestige of other schools. Question: what exactly does Harvard’s president know about the strength of the programs at any other Top 10 school? More importantly, what exactly does Harvard’s president know about the strength of the programs at Sonoma State University? A whole lot less! This just creates a feedback loop. “Top” schools stay at the top, with very few being able to penetrate their bubble.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to rag on prestigious schools. It is society’s obsession with the rankings I have a problem with; it has been shown that moving one rank up in U.S. News will get you a 0.9% increase in applications. Colleges, understandably, are far too ranking hungry: the higher they get, the ” better” they become.

But this is about a lot more than just what colleges think. This is having a horrible impact on our society.

First, the idea that you have received a better education by attending a school higher up on one of these lists is dangerous. It inflates the value of one degree and devalues another. I know plenty of people who are learning more at their not-even-Top-100 schools than some of my friends at HYPSM (which stands for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT), and it is completely due to their work ethic and love of learning. Sure, some schools may have more resources, but there are plenty of people who don’t take advantage of them. In addition to that, it can make people arrogant; “because X college isn’t ranked highly, I am better than it.” A girl I know, when she was applying to colleges, ranked Pitzer College as a safety school. She was later rejected from not only Pitzer, but also most of her other schools.

Second, it creates an artificial measure for a quality education. Think about it, how do you measure a good education? Test scores? Alumni giving? Endowment? According to these rankings, it is all of the above. Again, these measures are dangerous because they benefit the privileged. Not every school can have a $1 billion endowment because not every school measures wealth as success. I think the most accurate measure would be preparedness, which Forbes makes clear is difficult to define (they erroneously use salary as a measure for post-graduate success). A quality education is about being prepared to face, analyze, and solve complicated problems in your world, whether it’s problems in politics, physics, economics, or race/class/gender struggles. Rankings, which act as moneymaking sensationalism, don’t measure that.

If there is no way to account for different definitions of success, preparedness, and a good education, then there is no point to having college rankings. Don’t listen to them! Throw them out. Rankings attempt to correlate your worth through your school’s “worth,” but you are far more than a number generated by unreliable methodologies. If you want to be a top student, work hard and reach your definition of success.

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the author

Lillian is a member of the Pitzer Class of 2017, where she is an anticipated Biology major. She is a first-generation college student that is interested in dental medicine (floss please!), mental health, visual arts, and political activism. Combining these interests, it is Lillian's life goal to heal communities on a micro and macro scale through medicine, art, and activism. You can learn more about her on her personal website. Since she will be retiring from TP at the end summer '14 in order to prepare for her study abroad in Ecuador, please subscribe to her blog to follow her journey!

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  1. Chinasa on November 30, 2013

    Great article!

  2. Amanda Huebner on July 6, 2014

    Yes, there are so many fantastic schools that aren’t “top 10”.

  3. Pingback: The do’s and don’ts of college confidential | The Monty Sponge 20 Mar, 2015

    […] culture, and as such, it comes with a whole host of problems including but not limited to prioritizing rankings, obsessing over test scores, and breeding insane amounts of anxiety in students. A substantial […]

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