Do university rankings serve applicants well?

Editor’s note: In this outlook, students discuss college rankings. Next week we’ll ask, “Most men’s single-sex colleges merged long ago. But what about the women’s colleges? Vassar began admitting men in 1969, and now Notre Dame of Maryland University, a women’s college, has abruptly announced that it would begin admitting male undergraduates next fall. Should single-sex colleges still exist?” Students must click here to submit statements of less than 250 words by September 27. The best answers will be published that evening. Click here to submit a video to our Future View Snapchat show.

College rankings don’t matter. In reality, the colleges are so different that they cannot be compared. Some rankings are based on post-college careers, funding, applicant pool and acceptance rate. Others describe where to find the most beautiful campus, the best food, and the best housing. How can you weigh all these factors to create a single ranking scale?

When deciding where to go to college, students must consider what is most important to them. Do you want a large public sports school in the South? Want a small private liberal arts college in New England? Want Ivy League prestige? Each student will weigh the attributes of colleges differently, and relying only on rankings can give you the wrong school. Administrators should focus on other ways to attract students and stop worrying so much about the overly simplistic ranking numbers.

—Ryan Hagerman, Quinnipiac University, political science

Would you choose the 300th ranked school over the 10th?

The United States has over 5,000 colleges and universities. Students and their families need a way to compare them. Although college rankings are not the only thing people should consider when choosing a school, they are an important factor for many students and their families. It may be taboo to admit that you chose your school for its location, but most students will go to one of the highest-ranked institutions to which they are accepted. This is because although the ranking system is not perfect, it offers important information. The difference between the 100th and 110th ranked schools may be essentially meaningless, but the gap between the 500th and 2,000th. is it not.

—Eamon Collins, Iowa State University, computer engineering

Unhealthy competition

A student’s college decision is highly individual, influenced by economic, social, educational and personal factors. Numerical rankings say nothing about whether a college is a good fit for a student and can never accurately capture a school’s quality.

Instead, ranked lists fuel a culture of elitism and one-upmanship that influences students’ college decisions. Lists like the US News Rankings are pervasive and allow for a culture that pushes high-achieving students to constantly compete with each other. Regardless of whether it is truly better, it gives students a way to outdo each other by getting into a higher ranked school. This illusion of prestige is profitable and gives universities the incentive to try to climb higher in the rankings.

When Columbia recently admitted that it had submitted fraudulent data to US News’ college rankings, it should have been a wake-up call to students that it doesn’t matter if your college is highly ranked.

—Lillian Ali, Northwestern University, Journalism

They are not the end-all, but they are not nothing

College placements are absolutely important. Although they are not the final choice of college, they are a measure of a school’s quality. They include such important factors as the teacher-to-student ratio, the rate of graduation, the extent of the alumni network and endowment. These goals are imperfect, but a good placement tends to match a good overall experience.

Leaderboards’ imperfections are hardly a burden. Students have access to all possible information about their future schools outside of these numbers. Of course, student life encompasses so much more than placements: you can participate in research, do internships, join design teams or campus organizations, work as teaching assistants and gain other experience. Locations may not include this information, but neither do they prevent anyone from exploring these options.

The ranking of your school does not define who you are, but it is part of your academic and professional career.

—Rafael Arbex-Murut, University of California, Berkeley, information and data science

Nothing changes

The fact that Columbia falsified its data shows that the importance of these rankings is grossly overstated. The scandal shows that Columbia administrators seem to believe that the school is untouchable, that the consequences do not apply to them. And they are not wrong. Columbia fell 16 places when news of its cheating broke, but it is unlikely to have an impact on its next application pool. Students will still compete to attend the school for its prestigious Ivy League status. Although Columbia now looks slightly worse in the national rankings, its reputation as a top-tier institution will compensate for this blemish on its record.

—Jackson Walker, University of Wisconsin-Madison, journalism and English

Locations don’t help you find where you belong

All students want to go to the strongest school they can get into. That said, college rankings take a backseat to students’ visions of themselves on campus—especially the social, financial, and extracurricular opportunities a college can offer. Unless a student is specifically determined to attend a top-ranked school, it is much more important for a college to develop and advertise specific resources for classes, work, and leisure. Contrary to popular belief, university is not, and was never meant to be, a comprehensive job training program. Rather, a university’s purpose is to develop well-rounded young adults who are capable, competitive, and contributing.

Today’s students arrive in their dormitories highly competent in a range of extracurricular activities, from political debate to football. Their penchant for wasting these fledgling talents with incessant revelry is directly related to a university’s failure to provide opportunities and resources that would make use of these skills while giving the student a sense of meaning and belonging—not only on campus but in the community.

Essential and necessary aspects of undergraduate life are the personal connections you make and the activities you participate in. These are as integral to career development as hard skills. An alienated student with high grades will be at a disadvantage than a socialized student with solid grades. Universities should focus on assimilating students into adulthood. This is what students want, regardless of location.

—Joseph Tierney V, Marquette University, economics and real estate

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