Re-Ranking the Rankings

It's fall again, which means shiny, new, back-to-school notebooks, pumpkin spice everything, and the release of the U.S. News & World Report's lists of top colleges.

Once again, Princeton University tops the list of Best National Universities and Williams claims the title of #1 Liberal Arts College. And as a proud Princeton alumna, it pains me to say this: it doesn't matter. 

If we're being honest, I only found out the report had been released this year because my dad proudly texted me an article summarizing its results. In a text message stylistically typical of middle-aged fathers everywhere, he simply sent me the hyperlink with no accompanying note. (But had he sent a note, it would have said, "SUCK IT, HARVARD! HOW DOES NUMBER TWO TASTE?" because I taught him well. Just kidding.) To him, and to panicked parents of high school seniors across the country, the list speaks for itself. The problem is, no one actually knows what it's saying.

In front of my Freshman and Sophomore year dorm in Whitman Residential College, Princeton

As Malcom Gladwell points out in his 2011 essay The Order of Things, "there’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution—how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best." The whole thing is just another re-run episode of that early aughts game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? “Welcome to the show where everything's made up and the points don't matter." 

So where do these made up numbers come from, anyway? How does U.S. News calculate the “proxies of quality” to which Gladwell refers? U.S. News reports that it uses the following criteria:

1.    Graduation and retention rate
2.    Undergraduate academic reputation
3.    Faculty resources
4.    Student selectivity
5.    Financial resources
6.    Graduation rate performance
7.    Alumni giving rate

I won’t get into the gory details of how exactly U.S. News attempts to quantify some of these highly qualitative criteria, but let’s just say the math smells fishy at best. So why do we bestow so much importance on this meaningless list? 

Gladwell points out the appeal of a single, simple, numerical ranking to consumers; when left to compare apples and oranges (or, as Gladwell juxtaposes, the University of Wisconsin with Yeshiva University) on their own, college applicants and their families often end up lost. But it’s this reduction of an entire educational ecosystem into one silly number that is the U.S. News Report’s fundamental flaw. If, for example, a school that’s faltering in faculty resources can maintain its ranking through increases in alumni giving or professors’ salaries, how much is this list really telling us about a child’s ability to succeed there? 

Pomona College, ranked #7 among National Liberal Arts Colleges

No two applicants are the same; it therefore logically follows that no one set of criteria could possibly indicate a "best" ranking of schools that applies to every single student. As a member of the LP College Advising team, I see dozens of involved, caring parents bookmarking and studying the list every year, just like mine once did. But to these parents, I can't stress how little this has to do with their sons' and daughters' future success and happiness.

So, I propose a new ranking system—or, for that matter, thousands of ranking systems—one for each student in the midst of the application process. More and more colleges are moving away from reductive numerical evaluation to size-up applicants, and take pride in emphasizing the “holistic” nature of their application processes. Applicants themselves should consider doing the same. Step away from the numbers and use that college-ready noggin to do your own qualitative evaluation of schools. 

Which schools offer the major of your dreams? When you visited campus, did you get that warm, tingly feeling that you were right where you belonged? Can the school challenge you academically? Does it have the resources to support you if you falter? What kind of track record does the school have with job placement in your desired field? What kind of diversity does the student body represent? Can it expand your beliefs, opinions, ideas? Is there a group of people, somewhere on campus, like you, with whom you can blow off steam when you’ve discussed, parsed, researched, and reported on your new beliefs, opinions, and ideas until you’re blue in the face? 

Let these questions be your guide, and I promise, you and your future college will both come out on top.