The Best 376 Colleges. The Ultimate Guide to College. America’s Best Colleges. Titles like these jump off the neon covers of books thick enough to serve as doorstops. These are the college guides that sit in high school career centers, enticing you with the promise of helping find “the right school for you.”
But according to many of these texts, the so-called “right school” is based on a composite list of the all-around best universities in the country, rankings which vary in thoroughness and are often presented to the reader with little insight into their determination. Now, some people — including administrators at well-known universities — are calling college rankings into question, and rightfully so.
The most recent criticism comes in light of a doctoring scandal at Claremont McKenna, a private liberal arts college in Southern California. Last week, a senior administrator resigned after it was revealed the admissions office had been exaggerating the SAT scores of freshman classes. The college is ranked ninth in the U.S. News & World Report’s most recent compilation of liberal arts schools, but U.S. News said they will be reevaluating where Claremont McKenna is positioned on the list.
Critique of the legitimacy and purpose of college rankings is nothing new. In 2007, the Annapolis Group, an organization of liberal arts colleges, met and denounced the “reputational” portion of U.S News’ annual report, which asks individual college presidents to grade the other institutions in their category on a scale of one to five.
It would be justified (if not long overdue) for other colleges to follow suit in rejecting the notion of rankings. Besides the reputation portion of the report, which comprises nearly a quarter of the formula used to determine an institution’s rank, other factors include financial resources, alumni giving, and retention rates, among several others.
It may seem like a thorough evaluation, but there are obvious holes in U.S News’ system. It takes into too much consideration the individual opinion of top collegiate officials, who could abuse the system by either intentionally downgrading a fellow university out of personal bias or because they know little about them. It integrates alumni donations, which could vary greatly depending on the size, location and socioeconomic stature of its graduating classes. It looks at how accomplished a college freshman was as a high school senior, a variable again at least partly determined by a student’s or school’s economic accessibility to resources like prep classes and study guides. As Malcolm Gladwell notes in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”
It is undeniable certain universities have better academic reputations than others. But just because a thinktank crunched some numbers and determined one school is “better” than another doesn’t make it the right choice. Prospective students should eschew college rankings and make their decision based on the factors that matter to them most, whether they be location and athletics or clubs and class sizes. Age is seen as just a number — so is a college’s ranking.