CollegeConfidential.com is a pretty frightening place.
The site features a message board in which posters discuss issues such as finding and choosing a college, preparing for the SAT and ACT and improving one's application and essays. Nervous high school students — and many of their parents — can find a sympathetic digital community and receive the advice and affirmation they crave during a stressful process.
However, the forums also reflect unpleasant, unsettling realities of college admissions: its acutely competitive nature and the desperation it incites among applicants.
For example, one popular board with nearly 400,000 posts is called "What Are My Chances?" As its title suggests, students post their GPAs, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and other information they consider pertinent, and ask other College Confidential members to tell them what their chances of getting into particular schools might be.
Also, last month, a "Senior Advisor" on the site named Sally Rubenstone created a discussion topic asking College Confidential members for stories about pursuing an extracurricular activity only because they thought "it would impress admission committees." Students responded that they had joined groups such as the Model United Nations, honors societies and community service programs only for that purpose.
One poster, andre10, was particularly honest about his academic motives: "I did the IB program at my school PURELY for the hopes of it boosting my admission chances. I will consider it to be a failure if I get into less than 3 of my top 5 choices."
Clearly, it is not ideal for students to be joining clubs and taking on demanding workloads simply to impress admissions officers. It's counterproductive for students to be so paranoid about their "chances" that they rely on generally uniformed input from strangers on the Internet.
I'm optimistic that most high school students have far healthier attitudes about college admissions than some of the posters on College Confidential. Still, the extreme anxiety of the minority is unsettling.
Some people applying to college may feel so pressured because they are following their dream schools' lead — colleges themselves can seem obsessed with accumulating prestige and edging out competition. A key example of this preening behavior is the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.
Every year, U.S. News publishes ordered lists of the "best" national universities and liberal arts colleges in America. For 2010, Harvard and Princeton tied for the number one spot, and Brown was in 16th place, making Brunonians the lowest-ranked members of the Ivy League.
U.S. News assigns schools scores out of 100 based on 15 indicators, including selectivity, per-student spending, the rate of alumni giving and "peer assessment." They calculate "peer assessment" by surveying college presidents, deans of admission and provosts on how those people perceive rival institutions.
If College Confidential's message boards demonstrate how crazed college applicants can be, colleges' pursuits of high U.S. News rankings also make it clear that these institutions are not above ambition for ambition's sake. Colleges have grown adept at manipulating their rankings through maneuvers such as encouraging their alumni to give smaller donations at a higher rate, inviting applications from those they do not plan to admit to boost their selectivity and giving rankings rivals low "peer assessments."
Some schools, including Reed College, have rebelled against participating in the U.S. News rankings. If Brown wants to alleviate the sense that colleges are overly concerned with prestige, the administration should promptly follow these schools' lead.
Boycotting the rankings would call national attention to their flaws, including how U.S. News' methodology focuses heavily on evaluating incoming students, rather than measuring how effectively a college educates them.
Boycotting the rankings would attract the right kind of attention to Brown. Rather than appeal to the type of applicant interested only in Brown's high rank in U.S. News' "first tier" of national universities, the move could make us appeal to the type of students who would appreciate what makes us unique, such as our open curriculum and its celebration of intellectualism. The administration should feel confident that Brown's strong record could speak for itself without relying on a ranking.
Boycotting the rankings would make a valuable statement about what matters in finding and choosing a college. It would demonstrate that a school's qualities and character, which are necessarily subjective and not quantifiable, are what individual applicants need to evaluate on their own terms.
And, maybe, officially abandoning the rankings game can encourage stressed high school students to worry less about the college process. By abstaining from a system in which one college must go down for another to go up, Brown can emulate a healthier, less-competitive perspective on higher education.