The Flaws in College Rankings

Whether they were sitting in class, studying at the library or sleeping in, for most college students across the country, Sept. 13 was likely just a typical, tiring Tuesday only a few weeks into the new semester.

However, while any observer on a college campus may have seen simply students go about their daily lives, anyone happening to wander into an administration building would likely have encountered a different scene. Even if calm on the surface, the faculty and staff of every college across the country were facing the same annual stress. As they stared at their computer screens, many administrators undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief, while others slammed their fists down on tables in frustration. Only one event can lead to this simultaneous display of emotion at colleges across the country: the release of the annual U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings.

For Emory, the rankings brought mostly good news. The University regained its top-20 status, tying with Georgetown University (D.C.) and University of California, Berkeley, after sliding down to the 21st spot for the past two years. Goizueta Business School’s BBA program was ranked 15th in the country; Emory also earned the distinctions of 17th best valued school and the 11th best college for veterans. Many other colleges were not so fortunate. For example, Emory’s rival institution, Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.), slid down four spots from 15th to 19th overall.  

While a slight shift may seem trivial to outsiders, it is a big deal to institutions. In the current college admissions landscape, with soaring tuition costs, the proliferation of social media and an increasing number of colleges claiming to be “elite,” many students feel overwhelmed with the staggering variety and number of choices they face. In the past, students may have only applied to a handful of colleges, but today, due to the relative ease of online applications, they are routinely applying to over 10. Many are confronted with difficult choices when decisions come out, often choosing between colleges unfamiliar to themselves and their families. The U.S. News data provides a way to quantify this choice by presenting a neat list comparing colleges. As the oldest and most publicized ranking source, U.S. News has a large impact on institutions’ yield rates and the percentage of admitted students who choose to attend. Colleges with higher yields can be more selective with their admissions, which in turn increases their prestige and reputation. This creates a treadmill system, with up-and-coming colleges finding it hard to catch up to those already established.

Prospective students are increasingly being sucked into this process, heavily considering a college’s rank when deciding where to apply and attend. However, as attention to rankings has increased, their effectiveness in determining whether one college is better than another is coming into increasing doubt. The final numbers are an aggregation of many pieces of data, mostly related to a college’s selectivity, financial resources and graduation rate. Highly selective private institutions dominate the rankings, with many costing over $60,000 a year and boasting admission rates below 20 percent. While these colleges meet the traditional definition of “prestigious,” they are unattainable to the vast majority of students for both financial and academic reasons. The flood of applications these universities receive each year leads to extremely low chances of students being accepted. Most applicants will inevitably receive the dreaded small envelope, containing a letter telling the recipient that they had the misfortune of being part of the largest and most qualified group of students ever to apply to the college, and are being turned down due to lack of space rather than ability.

This is where the heart of the problem lies with the U.S. News rankings. These numbers perpetuate the belief that the college experience can somehow be quantified and packaged into a simple number, ignoring the fact that they are causing an endless cycle of lifting up a small group of selective wealthy colleges at the expense of others. Instead of choosing schools based on specific programs or opportunities offered, students are led to believe that their chance at future success is based off the position of their college in these rankings.

At best, this notion is misleading. Studies have repeatedly shown that the selectivity and ranking of a school do not necessarily lead to higher earnings for graduates. For many students, attending public universities with in-state tuition or less selective colleges offering scholarships can still lead to satisfactory salaries with a fraction of the debt. This is a particular benefit to middle class students who fall above the threshold for financial aid and must shoulder the full cost of tuition.

At their worst, the rankings can be far more than misleading. Many institutions have learned to game the system, oftentimes by focusing on the SAT and ACT scores of its applicants. Although this is an easy way to increase the perceived selectivity of an institution, it disadvantages poor and minority students who don’t have the resources to prepare for these challenging exams. SAT/ACT scores correlate strongly with income and not at all with academic performance beyond the first year. It also creates a one-size-fits-all model, where a university may ignore redeeming features of candidates with low test scores.

Rankings are not what they claim to be. They attempt to quantify what fundamentally is a qualitative decision. While the vast majority of students will attend and thrive at universities far down in the list, the media and society feed the myth that the only path to success is an acceptance letter to an “elite” institution. Only by actively fighting this broken system can we hope to achieve change. So the next time you have the urge to show-off to your friends and family by sharing a link on Facebook about Emory being a top-20 school, think again. Our greatness is not defined by a number.

Andrew Kliewer is a College freshman from Dallas, Texas