College, Rank, and File: How Much do College Rankings Matter?

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Published by Columbia Daily Spectator

But what, exactly, makes a college better than another, and can a ranking on a list ever really reflect that? U.S. News & World Report's efforts to answer this have not gone uncontested. Several colleges and universities, such as Barnard, Reed, Alma, St. John's and Stanford, have criticized, boycotted, or dropped out of the U.S. News & World Report college list altogether. Numerous schools distort SAT scores and inflate their applicant numbers and yield rates in order to achieve more desirable rankings. In other words, the system is increasingly dishonest and superficial rather than reflective of the actual value of college. Art & Science Group Principal Richard Hesel notes in an article that institutional trustees and alumni tend to "grossly overreact when faced with a downward shift in the rankings," because they interpret their school's ranking as "a referendum on their institutional status." This causes colleges to focus their efforts on increasing their rankings rather than on other factors more likely to have an impact on enrollment or student quality.

Of course, there is are endless lists out there that cater to every personality type—"best colleges for English majors," "most LGBT-friendly colleges," "most liberal campuses," to name a few. For those without the resources to visit colleges or without the time to look into many colleges in detail, these lists can help inform their decisions. It's not problematic that lists exist, per se; it is simply that the most visible lists are Forbes and U.S. News & World Report. Their lists of "best colleges," judged by questionable criteria, are significant because they don't claim to show the best colleges for a certain major or sport but rather the best colleges in general—which is a grandiose claim. In catering to our cultural insecurity and need for self-affirmation, Forbes and U.S. News & World have undertaken an endeavor more complex than it seems: defining what a college should be, and then measuring all colleges by that standard.

In a study conducted in November and December 2012 by Art & Science Group, two-thirds of students surveyed indicated that they had taken college rankings into account in the application process. Nearly two-thirds "strongly agreed" or "somewhat agreed" that rankings are "very important" when deciding between colleges; two-thirds somewhat or strongly disagreed that rankings "don't matter." U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges" leads the pack as the predominant list used by students to judge colleges.

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