Vilsan ’19: College is about more than rankings

staff columnist
Friday, April 8, 2016

Over spring break, prospective college students across America received their admissions decisions — a moment Brown students remember all too well. In making our final choices, we compared locations, thought about student demographics, considered student-to-teacher ratios and wondered how much winter clothes would add to our college debt. Then, whether we like to admit it or not, we looked up the U.S. News and Forbes rankings, knowing that whether or not the rankings mattered to us, they may very well matter to our future employers.

At a time when college degrees are becoming more valuable and job prospects seem meager even to the most qualified applicants, college rankings can make or break an applicant’s decision to attend an institution. But have college rankings become more of a popularity contest than a true reflection of educational value? Are the schools with the flashiest endowments and most flattering school colors bound to be the prom kings, or are there examples of meaningful indicators of college quality?

Right now many students across America are making the choice to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree. Are they going to be paying for the university name on their diploma, counting on that prestige to provide a high return on investment, or are they going to make the calculation based on the quality of a school’s academics? Though a quick Google search is the easiest way to evaluate the monetary worth of a specific college’s degree, it will likely not articulate the true value of the educational experience.

The Brookings Institution, a progressive American think tank, developed a new method of ranking institutions, one that aims to reach beyond fame and fortune in calculating educational worth. U.S. News reportedly calculates its yearly rankings based on student retention, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving and high school counselor ratings of colleges. Brookings believes that this methodology, along with the various others used by publications such as Forbes, does not reflect the true value added to a student’s education by a particular school. After all, if a school fills its halls with wealthy, high-achieving students, can it really pat itself on the back when those students predictably achieve financial success and continue donating?

The real question is: How much has the school itself provided to the student, and how much of that value is unique to the institution? The Brookings college ranking attempts to isolate the college’s value from all other factors associated with prestige, such as student background or famous alums. The five factors with the most weight in these updated rankings are curriculum value, alumni skills, science, technology, engineering and math orientation, completion rates and student aid. The Brookings website is interactive and allows students to assess the loan repayment rates and mid-career earnings of a school’s typical graduate, among other things. As opposed to other college rankings, Brookings does not create a list of universities, but rather allows students to search for their university of choice and discover whether it adds value to its average graduate. Some students may find that the institution in question actually has a negative effect on the existing potential of the applicant.

When I was applying to college, nobody told me about the Brookings rankings or anything more comprehensive than the typical lists. Everybody relied on the rankings that placed the well-known institutions at the top by default. That’s not to say that some of those institutions don’t deserve their spots at the top. But we have to stop teaching prospective college students that a name-brand school and the higher tuition it brings automatically lead to a higher-quality education. Why do we preach that college debt is a necessary sacrifice? 

Of course, the value of a degree can never accurately be measured, despite the logic behind a particular methodology. Individual students rank universities based on the factors they personally value most. At this very institution, you can find students who chose Brown because of its elite ranking and others who chose it for its laid-back atmosphere. The current ranking status quo cheats students of a full consideration of various educational merits.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to