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College Clout Chasing Doesn’t Reflect College Experiences

The pressure to apply and go to a good college is considerable, but when making these decisions, it is often difficult for students to figure out what even makes a good school. Why is there so much focus on only a select few? One reason for this is the annual college rankings put out by different organizations. They are given information such as test scores and graduation rates to determine which schools are “better.”

US News & World Report (USNWR) is a media company that publishes annual US college ratings, among other things. They evaluate colleges based on 16 criteria of “academic quality.” In short, their measurements are based on student retention, graduation rates, and faculty strength. Despite recent changes in their approach to rating colleges, the expected universities — Princeton, Harvard, and Yale — are all still believed to be the superlative choice for continuing higher education. This is very problematic for students, as USNWR uses “hard objective data” alone. While this is great for determining faculty salary, it does not take into consideration the intangibles and aspects that are specific to individual students such as student opinions, location, size, and programs. Because of this, basing colleges mainly on rankings is an absurd way of deciding where to go to school, yet college reputations still play a big role in applications and attendance in many schools.

Students are subject to peer pressure in their high school environment, which is why many students try to attend well-known schools. This supports a vicious cycle that increases yearly tuition prices and fosters unhealthy competition between schools. 

College ranking and reputation should definitely be thought about when applying to college, but students should also look beyond the rankings. It’s good to keep in mind that just because a school isn’t reputable, doesn’t mean that it’s not going to provide a quality education for you as a person; it simply means it doesn’t fit all of the criteria. The reality is, a student’s experience in college is not most affected by data regarding that institution, but rather the physical and social environment they are living in.

As Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist for The New Yorker, put it, “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the US News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”