With college application season in full bloom across the country, many university applicants will come into contact with college rankings. US News, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal publish some of the more well-known lists, though many more exist. Each operates in a similar fashion: quantifying the otherwise abstract idea of excellence into hierarchical lists. The exact criteria vary between the rankings, but the basic premise remains the same.
In their dizzying abundance, college rankings have permeated the ethos of American higher education. This is obvious to anyone who has ever received an email or a pamphlet from a university. In bold print, colleges will tout their statuses as “top ten,” “top twenty” or “top fifty” institutions. This obsession with categorization, however, is not just a banal business tactic but damaging to the ways in which we understand the university landscape.
I have always found the idea of ranking colleges to be a perplexing one. Unlike ice cream flavors or boy band members, colleges should transcend simplistic description and comparison. While we can use an unjustified opinion to vouch for the merits of rocky road or Harry Styles, our evaluation of a college, a vast and varied academic institution, ought to be of a higher standard. For the organizations creating the rankings, this higher standard usually entails some form of holistic evaluation — an attempt to create a broad picture of a school.
The issue is that holistic evaluations almost always prove to be selectively holistic. No matter how much a ranking tries to consider a wide range of factors, it necessarily neglects many others. The US News Best Colleges ranking, a staple in many students’ college application processes, looks at attributes such as faculty resources, student excellence and financial resources, attempting to account for many different facets of a school. But US News also excludes factors such as social life and athletics in the process, in their own words, “for better or for worse.”
Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education released a report last year titled “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings,” which essentially dispelled the utility of ranked college lists, particularly for students looking to decide where to apply for college. The piece argued that the rankings employ metrics that do not indicate the quality of a college. Moreover, the report notes that many statistics used by rankings are convenient ones rather than meaningful ones. If anything, rankings mislead students by encouraging them to think that factors such as selectivity are more important than prospective students’ compatibility with a school’s culture.
News outlets themselves often attempt to address or acknowledge the faults of their own college lists. The Wall Street Journal ranking opts for adaptability, letting users personally choose which parameters matter most to them — such as outcomes, resources, engagement or environment — in an attempt to combat generalization. Just this year, Forbes published a piece titled “The Limits of College Rankings,” cautioning readers about its own list’s oversimplifications.
But self-awareness does nothing to solve the fundamental flaws of these rankings. Above all, they contribute nothing constructive to the national conversation on colleges. They give us a vague picture of higher-education crafted from largely meaningless statistics. What can students learn from looking at the US News Best Colleges list that they couldn’t learn elsewhere? A cursory glance at the top of the list shows nothing more than a monolith of already powerful institutions. Even sorting a list by “engagement,” as you can on the Wall Street Journal’s ranking, simply replaces one layer of distortion with another. Further, for the confused or uninformed applicant, rankings are doubly dangerous because they are both appealing in their convenience and misleading in their simplicity. They only serve to hinder a productive search for a good fit college, when applicants might be better off starting somewhere else, whether looking at net-price calculators or learning about specific curricula.
And yet, rankings continue to be marketed as resources for students making decisions on where to apply. I find this baffling. Why does a hierarchy need to exist for this purpose? Are aspirational students meant to start from the top and then work their way down? In a ranking, so many important details, particularly subjective elements like student culture, are lost in the space between one and two, twenty-one and twenty-two. As they are, college rankings are just another piece of sensationalist media. Their methods may be rigorous in a technical sense, but in the end they result in a rigorous exploration of nothing at all.
As students, we should shift our focus away from rankings. So too must our universities. Rankings are currently granted legitimacy by the very institutions they rank. Colleges care about their positions on the list, or at the very least, they enjoy boasting about them. This year, Brown celebrated its own high performance on various rankings. In a display of measured humility, University officials stated “While no ranking can ever fully capture the unique character of the academic experience at Brown, we are pleased to see such a wide range of rankings recognize the distinctiveness of living and learning in this vibrant intellectual community.”
I wonder why the University felt the need to share this at all. I highly doubt that intellectual vibrancy was a factor on anyone’s rubric. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, boasting about a ranking may just be an innocuous form of self-congratulation, and I understand that it may serve to help advertise and attract applicants. But at the same time, I think Brown could do better. What a college says reflects what it values. I personally have always seen Brown as an institution that is constantly growing through self-examination, a trait that ironically eludes every ranking of our school. In that sense, participating in the meaningless discourse of being among the “best,” whatever that means, seems antithetical to our values.
After all, there are so many better things we could talk about. In making dogmatic statements of excellence, we obscure the importance of other, more relevant issues. For whom are these institutions the best? And in what ways can we change Brown, not in attempts to maintain our status on some list, but to actually better serve our students, our community and the world? The answers to these questions do not include higher yield rates and higher average SAT scores.
Earlier this year, a fascinating phenomenon occurred on the US News Best Colleges list. Five schools, including the University of California at Berkeley and Scripps College, were found to have misreported statistics. In response, US News removed these schools from their list and deemed them “unranked.”
Most of these schools scrambled to get right back on the list. Berkeley, for example, now sits at number 22. But what these schools may have perceived as a hit to the ego when deranked represents, in my view, the potential to thrive without a ranking. For a few brief months, they escaped. It wasn’t as if they stopped existing, vanishing into the void while they were unranked; rather, they could have seen the experience as a test of freedom from the expectations and unnecessary burden of the rankings. Across the college landscape, it would be good for all schools and all students to experience such freedom.
I am not saying that all colleges should suddenly start misreporting statistics. There is already too much false information floating around as is. But I do think it is an interesting thought experiment to imagine a world without a list of best colleges. It is a world where we are more well-informed, more critical and more wary of our own preferences when it comes to where we go to college.
It is also not hard to imagine at all.
Johnny Ren ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.