By: Hannah Singer ’23
What began as a naïve college list in 1983 quickly spiraled into an overvalued list that millions of students and parents consult in hopes of securing a spot at one of the nation’s best universities.
The U.S. News and World Report publishes an annual list that ranks the best universities in America. It is riddled with statistics about hundreds of schools—including average class sizes, average cost and graduation rates—, all in an effort to help students and families find the best college for them.
And while perhaps the rankings’ intentions aren’t harmful, the rankings themselves need to go, for after all, is it truly possible to measure the ‘bestness’ of a college? Who is to say that Vassar should be seven spots higher than Wesleyan, or that Georgetown should be ‘ranked higher’ than Brown? To many, U.S. News holds that determining power.
“When U.S. News and World Report issues its “Best Colleges” ranking, it is not immediately apparent what the top colleges have more of, relative to their lower-ranked peers – ‘bestness?’” reported the Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper of Tufts University.
The list “is an arbitrarily weighted average of statistics such as test scores, alumni donation rates, and a ‘peer assessment’ from surveys that university administrators use to rate their rivals,” per the Daily.
This peer assessment may be the most corrupt component of the ranking system. “A very substantial chunk (22.5-25 percent) of an institution’s ranking comes not from any hard data but from a ‘reputational’ measure, in which U.S. News solicits ‘peer assessments’ from college presidents, provosts, and admissions directors, as well as input from high-school counselors,” per the Atlantic.
By asking college officials to judge another school with little knowledge about the school itself, these peer assessments turn the rankings into a popularity or a beauty contest.
“A school is the best school if it’s the best for you,” Maddox Short ’23 said. “If you put someone into an environment not suitable for them even though it might have a great spot on the ranking list, they aren’t going to flourish, no matter what U.S. News says.”
The ranking system overlooks countless aspects of these schools, including their student outcomes and, surprisingly enough, the quality of the education, per the Atlantic.
“I think that there are a lot of factors that go into a college, and it is almost impossible to objectively rank them. Because of that, too much emphasis is placed on this list, when really, it is a subjective opinion that shouldn’t hold much value,” Megan Nuchereno ’23 said.
To highlight just how skewed these rankings truly are, it is important to look at how colleges are gaming the system to raise their place in the rankings. Some spend lots of money on what the U.S. News formula deems important, while others increase the size of their applicant pool so they can reject more applicants, proving themselves to be ‘more selective’ and ‘more worthy’ of a higher ranking, per CNN.
In fact, “Northeastern University decided to cap the size of smaller classes at precisely 19 students because U.S. News has historically assessed class sizes based on the percentage with fewer than 20 students,” reported the Daily.
Another problematic effect of this list is the way it rewards wealthy and predominantly white institutions.
“It’s a perpetuation of privilege,” Dr. Kimbrough, interim director of the Black Men’s Research Institute at Morehouse College, said. “It shouldn’t be called best colleges – call it America’s most privileged colleges.”
For high school juniors and seniors across the country and world today, this list exacerbates their ‘status anxiety,’ a term the New York Times coined to describe students’ worry about getting into these top-ranked schools.
“Many parents approach the rankings as make-or-break deals, the key to lifelong success as well as bragging rights,” reported the Times.
“The rankings pressure people to go to these ‘top-ranked’ schools, and as a junior, parents ask me which school I’m applying to, and I feel like I have to list (and then get into) impressive schools,” said Shelby Lovejoy ’24.
Lovejoy is not alone in this feeling. Hundreds of other Ursuline students feel the same way, as do thousands of students across the country, raising the question as to why we still give value to this subjective list.