October 3, 2006

The trouble with college rankings

Applying to college is never a pleasant process. For almost every high school senior in the country, this time of the year is marked by never-before-experienced levels of anxiety and uncertainty. But every year the U.S. News and World Report college rankings seem to clear this daze for many students and their families.

College rankings have made for big news since their inception. Although they have never been reported as gospel by the media, nor supported by the academy, they have certainly been interpreted as the ultimate guide for college applicants, who have overwhelmingly flocked to the colleges exalted by U.S. News and forgotten the rest.

But to blame this on US News is only to shoot the messenger. For one reason or another, demand for higher education skyrocketed in the mid-twentieth century. Which college one attended was no longer a concern relegated primarily to northeastern boarding school students.

In many respects, the U of C has successfully isolated itself from this mania. The rigor of the Core and the zaniness of the Uncommon Application ensured that the U of C would always get a top-notch class without having to compromise its standards or ideals. This explains why its move this year to work with US News to “more accurately” report its data has been met with such uncertainty on campus—even when it has led to such a huge leap in the much vaunted rankings.

On the one hand, the University should be encouraged that it really does stack up so well to its competitors—not that we didn’t know that already. But on the other, it is disconcerting to see the University’s jump attributable to, among other things, the classification of Core Bio and Hum writing sections as classes unto themselves. It is sad to see so many universities give in to what has become a college admissions culture monopolized by one reigning ranking system.

It is also sad that such pointless changes would so dramatically shift the rankings. Thousands of applicants’ college choices are likely to change this year, based on such an insignificant set of numbers. But this is likely to remain the situation so long as US News dominates the way people form their perceptions of colleges. Other media outlets need to start publishing rankings that are just as formal as U.S. News’s, but provide different perspectives on what makes a college great. A wider variety of publications would destroy the absurd grip that U.S. News holds over the minds of college applicants. It would allow the image of schools to broaden, and students to find better fits.

When a diversified field of publications begins to release information about colleges, in an equally concise manner, we can all expect rankings that are less about which college manipulated their numbers in the best way to fit one ranking system, and a more straightforward catalogue of what colleges have to offer.