College Rankings: Beyond the Numbers

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Joshua Sherman ’16 is one of two Opinions editors for this semester. Josh is an English major.

If there is a realm of decision-making more mystifying and perplexing than the college admissions process as a whole, it would without a doubt be the college rankings process.

Every year a few dozen or so newspapers, publications, and self-proclaimed know-it-alls will sit down, do some math, and rank the hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. You probably know some of them by name: US News & World Report; Forbes; Princeton Review; Kiplinger’s; the list goes on. There are many more you may or may not have ever heard and just about every publication that ranks things will at some point rank schools. What this calls into question is a lot of things, notably the nature in which these publications methodically rank, as well as the fact that collectively all the rankings these publications publish both matter and do not matter.

To understand why it does and does not matter, let’s first break down methodology. Fundamentally, each publication has to set some sort of ground rules to determine how it sets rank. At face value, this seems pretty straightforward and easy to understand. In order to calculate a final number, you need to incorporate other elements of a college that determine it. This can range in a variety of ways and can include the obvious things like test scores, GPAs of the students that attend, the type of residential offerings on campus, number of dining options, size of school and feedback on professors. There’s a host of data collected by dozens of agencies that have their entire business set on probing colleges to see how they tick. This is a foundation to the rankings, and while some of the aspects to this methodology make sense, beneath the surface something almost unbelievable is accounted for.

If you dig deeper, a lot of these ranking aspects can appear very circumstantial, biased based on the reader’s beliefs or values, and at times are plain silly. The Huffington Post just released a social influence ranking that rates schools based on Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and website traffic, which all tell you about nothing with respect to a school’s value, or its ability to teach students. It tells you nothing about the residential life, the social values, and so on. Some rankings take into account income after graduating – because after all money is everything, and a college education is your number one element to determine your ability to earn money.

It’s these often trivial ranking systems that are easy to reject, but then you realize that almost all the major ranking systems use this data to determine ranking just as much as they rate guidance counselor reviews, financial aid awards, efforts to bridge the social and income inequality gap, and many other factors that you may consider more or less important. It’s right here where you begin to realize the final number in most of these ranking systems is nothing more than doodley-squat.

With this knowledge in mind you may be quick to say that rankings don’t matter, and right you should. With this rather circumstantial, and at times biased methodology comes skewed rankings toward institutions based on a number of set qualities that appease the ranks, but not necessarily student life.

The reality though is that ranks do matter, especially as students begin the college search and start to peer at which schools they find interesting and worth their while. For those who are interested in the greatest academic challenges, they will immediately turn their heads to the online college ranking lists.

However, these lists don’t tell the whole story. Sort of like the tour you get at any school, you are only given a very bite-sized amount of information to draw a conclusion, and as a result you will not be able to get a good grasp of the school and what it could offer you. Still, these ranks play a serious aspect on affecting how domestic and international schools alike value the school. It even affects how students at the school perceive and value their education, and their prospects once they leave.

In reality, it’s really best to take every rank with a grain of salt – even the ones that paint Vassar in a positive light. It’s a lot like the SAT – it can shed light on a few functions that are important, but it will not immerse you and give you the in-depth understanding you need for a school. It’s a name just like Ivy League and Seven Sisters are names, too. It comes down to boiling what you reject from these ranks and figures to determine what essences you find among the schools you want to attend.

Most importantly, now that you’re at Vassar, forget all about the rankings and allow yourself to become immersed in the culture that the campus offers with an open mind. It’s important that as incoming students you realize what amazing opportunities await you in just a few weeks.

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