The news that Columbia University filed fraudulent data to rise in the US News & World Report university rankings has again raised the question of the significance of these rankings. Does anyone imagine that when Columbia “dipped” from #2 to #18 (its ranking was re-evaluated by US News on its own estimated data) that Columbia students sitting in their classrooms in Upper Manhattan have felt the quality of their education slipping away?
Columbia is the exact same university at #18 as it is at #2. Nothing real about a student’s experience is different. That also won’t change if Columbia manages to come back up. Is the University of Chicago (#6) just a wee bit better than the University of Pennsylvania at #7? Or objectively 10 places above lowly Cornell, very low at No. 17? These rankings have nothing to do with what is real about a college or university, and it’s time to once again declare them fools and encourage families, prospective students and all media around the world to ignore them.
Schools are not, in a holistic and abstract way, “better” or “worse”. They are different and serve different students. Some schools are wealthy and prestigious, and others are huge with diverse and niche programs, or are small and liberal arts focused. Some may have emphases like study abroad or interdisciplinary majors, while others provide a strong sense of belonging to specific students (historically black colleges or universities and Hispanic-serving institutions). These elements can shape your experience, but does it objectively make you “better”?
There is no doubt that schools such as the California Institute of Technology, which selects only 6.4% of applicants, can fill their classes with highly motivated and accomplished students. They have multi-billion dollar endowments and therefore extraordinary facilities. But will every student succeed at Cal Tech, even if admitted?
My own college, Wheaton College in Illinois, is an excellent school. I strongly believe in the quality of education we provide here. It also has a very specific mission of Christian education which might not work for everyone.
Extensive research has shown that prestigious names can make a difference in income and opportunity for some students – first-generation or low-income – but make no appreciable difference for others. (Holding other variables constant, most white men get no pay raise by going to Harvard rather than West Virginia University.) And no student is well served if he chooses a school where he is not succeeding academically, socially and emotionally.
The US News Rankings emerged at a time when information about specific colleges and universities was harder to come by. They have provided a guide for those unfamiliar with the many options available. Today, there is perhaps too much information available about colleges, so rankings can serve as an easy way to sort through the possibilities and perhaps choose from several good options.
But as someone who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I would encourage every college-bound student to ignore those numbers and instead borrow a technique from my own discipline of cultural anthropology.
Over time, schools create a culture. In a small college, this culture can extend to virtually every part of the campus. In a large university, there can be many “subcultures”, in the engineering school or in Greek life, or among theater students. Going to campus, staying overnight (not just attending the preformed admissions presentation), sitting in a class, and talking to students can reveal what’s really going on in the parts of the school that interest you. (Anthropologists call this ethnography.)
This type of research may not be an option for all students, given the time and cost involved, but every student can find alumni of this school (the more recent the better), write to students updates and join a social media account. by the students there. Determine the culture, atmosphere of the classrooms, dorms, groups or communities within the college where you would likely spend your time.
There is no doubt that the prestige of the Dartmouths and Stanfords of the world can count. But does school prestige shape campus culture the way you would like? Is it more creative or competitive? Is it a place where people help each other? Or does it emphasize independence? The ranking will not answer any of these questions.
Choosing School #51 (Lehigh University) over School #62 (University of Pittsburgh) won’t mean anything to you if you study sociology or biology, train with the football team, or play in the marching band. Your life will be much more specific than this arbitrary number assigned by a publication.
Achieving the life you want in college and beyond will be much more influenced by how you thrive in college – your success in classes, extracurricular activities, social connections – and, it should be mention, avoiding excessive indebtedness, only in the ranking.
So ditch the “research” of comparing listings and rankings. Instead, dive into the qualitative data you collect yourself. Explore the reality of school life, the places you think you’re going, and find the place where you can thrive. This is the only ranking that ultimately matters.
Brian Howell is professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois.
CSS MAKES THE LIST
The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth is one of 15 Minnesota schools listed in the 2022-23 Top College Rankings for “National Liberal Arts Colleges” and for “National Universities.”
No. 62: University of Minnesota Twin Towns
No. 137: University of St. Thomas, St. Paul
No. 212: Bethel University, St. Paul
No. 234: College of St. Scholastica, Duluth
No. 234: St. Catherine’s University, St. Paul
No. 299: St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Winona
National Liberal Arts Colleges
No. 6: Carleton College, Northfield
No. 27: Macalester College, St. Paul
No. 63: St. Olaf’s College, Northfield
No. 81: Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter
No. 94: St. John’s University, Collegeville
No. 94: Saint-Benoît College, Saint-Joseph
No. 136: University of Minnesota Morris
No. 145: Concordia College, Moorhead
No. 156-201: Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato