The problem with following college rankings

The problem with following college rankings

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The college ranking system fails to take into account the intangibles of a university. Photo from Ryan DeVito

By Ryan DeVito

A certain manufactured meritocracy exists in the United States. Success has become indelibly connected to elite college education in the minds of parents and students. Consequently, a student’s potential is dictated by his or her triumphs in the college arena. The logic goes like this: the higher an institution is ranked by U.S. News & World Report, the better a student is and the better their life will be.

College ranking systems are psychological demons. Thousands of data points tell a story that, year after year, paints a skewed picture of higher education. These ranking systems use algorithms to transform a host of statistics about one school into a single score. Students often use this score to make college decisions.

The existing ranking systems are silly, though. They attempt to compare completely disparate institutions on one inflexible scale. As a result, The Ohio State University can be compared to Pepperdine University. The former is an enormous public university in the middle of a large city; the latter is a small private Christian college perched above the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by mountains. Essentially opposites, U.S. News & World Report tells us that these schools are the same.

Ohio State and Pepperdine scored the same in the rankings algorithm. But these institutions are impossible to compare. Ohio State dominates downtown Columbus with nearly 60,000 students and another 20,000 staff members — all spread across dozens of various colleges, schools and departments. How could you possibly reduce the complexity that is The Ohio State University down to one solitary number?

College ranking systems fail to take into account the intangibles that make a college great. Academic reputation — among leadership at peer institutions — and faculty resources are the two variables given the greatest weight in the U.S. News ranking algorithm. The weight on these variables creates an obvious skew toward the well-endowed private universities that consistently grace the top of the rankings list. Rankings drive reputation and funding, and so a glass ceiling forms that keeps lower-ranked schools from every establishing their brands. But these variables tell us nothing about the ability of the institution and its faculty to inform and inspire students.

It’s the intangibles that enable success in students — regardless of whether they attend a top-ranked institution or not.

Students who are engaged and encouraged in their learning are better off. So the ability of professors to get their students excited about learning is much more important than how much research funding they have. The extent to which professors care about their students as people and are willing to act as mentors has a major bearing on the student’s potential for engagement. These are the intangibles that college rankings system could never take into account.

Of course, top-ranked institutions can offer these intangibles. My point, though, is that you can be engaged and encouraged anywhere. There are obvious flaws in the college ranking systems that we all too often rely on when making college decisions. A great college experience is not limited to the top of any ranking’s list. Success after college is not dictated by the ranking of the college you attend.

Rather than depending on any murky ranking system, search for the college that has the greatest potential to inform, inspire and challenge you personally. Your success after college depends most on your ability to find that engaging environment. Four years of engaged learning are more valuable than any ranking on its own. And it’s the engaged student, not necessarily the elite student, who has the potential to achieve the greatest success after graduation.

Ryan DeVito is a Miller Place native who started a college advising company, ScholarScope, to help Long Island students. Learn more at