Forbes magazine recently removed Emory from its “America’s Best Colleges” list, a gesture that has prompted reactions both of dismay and dismissiveness by many who heard the news. For years, students, faculty and administrators at Emory have debated: how much do rankings matter? Emory’s removal from Forbes’ list, the result of last year’s news that Emory had misreported SAT scores of admitted students, has created a good launching pad for discussion about the importance – or lack thereof – of rankings.
We at the Wheel feel that college rankings do have their place. There are both pros and cons to their existence, and our editorial board proved divided on the issue of their importance. As we wait for U.S. News & World Report to introduce their new rankings next week, we should take a step back and think critically about what rankings are made of, and what they really mean.
To put it simply, rankings are generally subjective, the product of pre-designed algorithms that crunch many different types of data into one, ready-to-go ranking number. Some rankings are based off of school endowment size, while others are based on more qualitative aspects of the university. Forbes, for instance, uses ratings from ratemyprofessor.com, a ratings site that compiles student-written ratings of professors into numerical averages, as a part of its methodology. Others focus on different criteria, such as research funds and development expenditures. It is also important to note that the methodologies by which rankings are compiled are are anything but hard and fast. Change the criteria or alter the algorithm, and the rankings will change as well.
Students who are applying and looking into colleges should be aware of the arbitrary quantification of schools and look for “lists” that specifically represent their interests. For instance, Emory may be ranked No. 20 by U.S. News – but it’s also ranked the No. 1 best college for writers by USA Today and CollegeDegree.com.
It could be that some people are perceiving lists such as Forbes‘ as more than what they truly are, assuming that such rankings represent a comprehensive view of universities. But this raises an issue. Forbes incorporates ratemyprofessor.com data into its statistics, but for years, Emory students took to LearnLink’s Class Comments conference to post their views on faculty rather than this site. How could Emory’s ratemyprofessor.com’s average for Emory be a legitimate reflection of what students think of professors? No matter what kind of algorithm is used, any ranking has ample potential for subjective flaws. Last fall, as most are aware, Emory was caught misreporting SAT and ACT scores as well as the class ranks for admitted students for more than a decade, which spurred the school’s removal from Forbes in the first place and prompted administrators to launch a corrective action plan to prevent mishaps in the future. Emory is not alone – it’s among five undergraduate schools that has admitted to falsifying data since fall 2011.
Misreporting data, potentially to increase schools’ rankings, creates a vicious cycle within the rankings system. Forbes removed Emory for falsifying statistics; however, the magazine’s rankings could be considered a part of a system that pressures universities to do whatever it takes to raise their number. Such problematic acts stem from a tendency to rely more on a number than the characteristics of the university – campus life, diversity and so on.
Furthermore, rankings potentially incentivize schools to misrepresent data in order to compete. Current students can do little to change rankings of their school while they are at Emory, and it seems futile to constantly worry about how rankings will affect our present and future as students. Further, rankings do not change what is going on at our campus. If we are pleased with where we are as a university, a number calculated by an algorithm becomes irrelevant to our quality of life on campus.
All of this is not to say that rankings don’t matter at all. Job placement, external perception of a school and recruitment of prospective students may depend on such rankings, to a certain extent. So, thinking ahead to next week, imagine the possibilities. What if Emory was ranked No. 21 rather than 20? How would that affect the number of applicants we receive? How would it change our experience of the school – or would it at all? Either way, we feel it is important for students, when looking at schools, to seek out specific qualities they deem important for his or her education. Rankings may factor into this decision, but don’t let that number determine where you go to school or how much you enjoy your time there.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.