Opinion: Students should be freed from the tyranny of college rankings

For all those disappointed college applicants who had their hopes of getting into a school rated highly by US News & World Report or similar, take heart.

This is your chance to break free from the tyranny of college rankings.

Tyranny is not a very strong word. The people who publish college rankings dress their products in a seductive veneer of professional expertise and statistical accuracy. They express their scores in flashy numbers presented in descending order (from 1 to 391, in the case of the US News “national universities” list).

According to this list, UCLA, ranked 20th, is better than USC, ranked 27th. So it must be true.

Or that? If you look at the methods used to arrive at these numbers, you will see that the whole enterprise, like the Emerald City in Oz, is mostly blue smoke and mirrors.

Let’s look at the formulas used by the rankers to calculate these numbers. Every step in this process—from the choice of variables, to the assignment of weights to them, to the methods for measuring them—is based on essentially arbitrary judgments.

US News, for example, selects 17 indicators for its formula from hundreds of available options. Why is he using, say, students’ SAT scores and not their high school GPA? Salaries of teachers, but not the quality of teaching? Alumni donations but not alumni income? Why doesn’t it include items like the school’s financial aid spending or its racial and ethnic diversity?

Similarly, the weights used to combine these variables into a total score are entirely subjective.

US News somehow concluded that the school’s six-year graduation rate is exactly 17.6% of its total score, but the student-to-faculty ratio is only 1%. To judge a school’s “academic reputation” it gives a whopping 20% ​​weight to the opinions of other college administrators, most of whom know very little about the hundreds of schools they are asked to rate other than where those colleges appear in the rankings. last year’s rating. And the publication does not attach importance to the opinion of students or graduates.

Even if you think the ranking formulas make sense, the calculations they are based on are overwhelmingly based on unaudited, unverified data provided by the ranking schools themselves. Would you invest in a company based on this information?

Finally, the rankings impose a single template on hundreds of amazingly diverse institutions. For example, US News includes Caltech, Santa Clara University, Chapman University, and Fresno State, along with UCLA and USC, in its long list of national universities, as if they were all interchangeable examples of a homogeneous product that differs only in relative status. .

In short, popular “best college” rankings try to squeeze American colleges and universities into a rigid hierarchy based on arbitrary formulas fueled by unreliable data.

Instead of relying on someone else’s subjective idea of ​​what they should want in college, applicants should ask themselves what they want to serve their own personal goals. Do they see college as a means to immerse themselves in a particular field of study? Get an impressive pedigree? Ready for a profitable career? Prepare to serve the community? Looking for guidance for a life of meaning and fulfillment? Or something different?

Choosing a college should be approached as self-discovery. Being rejected at a school that gets high marks from some complete stranger may be exactly what it takes to set applicants down that path.

Colin Diver is the former president of Reed College and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. He is the author of Breaking the Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Governs Higher Education and What to Do About It. © 2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by content agency Tribune.