This week the US News and World Report rankings of colleges came out. Over the years, I have written extensively about this topic, in order to put them in perspective and point away from the list and more toward the methodology, i.e. how they are formulated.
Here is what I know.
- Your time is limited. Between friends, school, work, practice, studying, and the basics of eating and sleeping, you are busy.
- College- and college admission can feel overwhelming. Lots of colleges, lots of opinions, lots of money. Lots.
- Rankings simplify things. On some level, we all desire this, right? Amidst the swirl of sources, the deluge of data, and the whirlwind of words around college, a list is refreshing. A clean, easy, simple cascading enumeration is like a healing balm.
I get it. I hear you. You’re not crazy. But it is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst to put any stock in the rankings, because it’s the opposite of how you want colleges to consider your applications—or for the overall admission process to be conducted.
In no particular order, here’s how I see it.
- More than a number (cue The Drifters). As a college applicant, you expect the colleges will not see you purely as a number. You don’t want them to boil your high school experience down to a cell on a spreadsheet, draw a hard cut off line on SATs, or assume your GPA absolutely defines you. Instead, you expect schools will use context and nuance as they review your application. As a senior, that’s why you are drafting, second guessing, and asking for opinions about your essay right now, isn’t it? (Yes. I see you.) You want them to see you in full. Return the favor.
When you draw hard lines and only visit or apply to schools in the Top X or Y from a list, or select a college simply because it’s ranked higher than another one to which you have been admitted, it gives way too much credit to the methodology on which these numbers are derived, and artificially distills countless qualitative factors and dynamics. As I have said before, good college applicants think like good college students and dig into any number, percentage, or statistic they find to understand the source, and determine it’s validity.
- Gameable. It’s been a few years since Varsity Blues (aka The Admission Scandal), and we’ve endured a global pandemic since then, so it may be fuzzy in your mind. Ultimately, what made the public so upset about this situation was that wealthy, connected parents were gaming the system in order to get their kids into particular schools. It was not fair. It was not ethical. As an applicant, you expect other students will not hack into the admission database, bribe admission officers, or influence college administrators in order to change their result in the process.
And you don’t want this to occur on a systemic level either. I know this because whether I’m in Georgia, California, abroad or anywhere in between, students and families are consistently worried “the school down the street” is inflating grades or getting an advantage because of some misperception of quality.
To put it gently, the rankings are very gameable at the micro and macro level. Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, The Lord of the Rankings, in which he details the work of Dr. Kelly McConville and her team of statisticians who enumerate specific tactics colleges employ to increase their position through strategic decisions. The truth is they don’t scratch the surface of the myriad ways ways to implement slight adjustments in class sizes, course naming conventions, faculty pay, or even the way you report and categorize numbers around the fringes, i.e. clinical changes, which have no bearing on the actual student experience.
In my career, I have personally known numerous admission deans who have been hired and fired based on their willingness, or lack thereof, to organize their operations (and their actual admission decisions) to boost a university’s spot. It’s one thing to have game, my friend. Gamey and Gaming- also different. The rankings are gameable. They are actively being gamed.
- Opinions vs. stats. Imagine you walked into class on the first day of school and Mrs. Bertha Ormse begins passing out the course syllabus. Slowly and repeatedly pulling and pinching her chin, she announces in her gravely voice, “On page 1-2, you can see what we will be learning this fall in US History 1800-1910.”
Scanning quickly you pick up the high points: Western expansion, War of 1812, Missouri Compromise, Monroe Doctrine, rise of railroads, Trail of Tears, Civil War, Reconstruction, Industrial Revolutoin. Nodding in agreement you think, “Makes sense. I’ve heard of most of this.”
Interrupting your ruminations, she continues matter-of-factly, “Page 3 outlines how you will be graded.”
Quizzes, homework, tests, projects = 80% of final grade.
“Ok. Ormse. I see you. I mean, I may have weighted quizzes a little less, but…” And then… “No. Certainly not. Wait… the final 20% of my grade is based on… opinion of other students.” 20%?!
That’s right. Your fellow students, who have a vested interest in their own scores and ultimate position in the class, will make up 1/5 of your final grade.
You start looking around anxiously and suddenly your mind shifts into overdrive.
Who is that kid in the second row? I’ve never seen him in my life.
Oh, no. Zach. He has always hated me ever since that thing with the guy at the place back in third grade.
Crap. Sarah. Everyone loves her. She’s…she’s…she’s…all the things I’m not. But does that make her better at history? Does that make her better than me in general?
Well…when the opinion of others accounts for 20% of the grade—probably.
And that’s how it goes for colleges with the rankings. 20% is based on the opinions of others. Others in the same game. Others in the same class. Others with vested interests in their own results and position.
Raise your hand if you’d like 20% of your admission decision to be based on the other applicants opinions of you. Ok. You can put your hand back down now. Oh, and to be clear, in most cases they’ve never met you, seen you, or have anything concrete to go on except where you are from and a vague recollection that a few years ago someone they met said you were “Ok.”
Bottom line: I earnestly think you are smarter than the gamemakers at US News. And I know you know you better than they ever could. So is it crazy to suggest you creating your own ranking system? More on that here.
Rank the Rankings
Colleges want you to apply because you have done your homework and believe you match up well academically and beyond the classroom. They send you brochures, email you invitations to come to campus, and even travel to your town or high school in hopes they can tell you a full story about their history, mission, offerings, and ethos. You apply to colleges expecting them to look beyond your name or test score. Holistic review is time intensive and deeply human. It’s not perfect, but it strives to be comprehensive. I’m just asking the same from you in your consideration of the rankings.