In U.S. News and World Report’s most recent ranking of national universities, The University of Wisconsin was placed 41st among all national universities and 10th among public universities. This is up four places from last year, when UW was 45th. This is a good sign for the university’s national reputation, but I strongly feel the annual college rankings should be close to irrelevant.
When rankings attempt to do a service by ranking colleges, they oversimplify a very complicated process. The idea choosing a college could be simplified to any one-size-fits-all measurement is absurd and disruptive to the college selection process. People are diverse as are their academic needs and preferences. A school that may be a recipe for success and happiness for one student may be a recipe for failure and misery for another. According to The New York Times, the vast majority of high school counselors and college administrators feel the rankings create confusion for students and their families. The overall rankings also are not specific to any one major, which means they do not reflect with any specificity how good an education individuals will get when they attend a school. A ranking of biology departments will likely look very different than the rankings of political science departments, and a one-ranking-fits-all approach negates that fact.
On top of this, the rankings aren’t even that reliable. The presence of 23 private universities out of of the top 25 schools shows the rankings may be biased against public institutions.
U.S. News also uses admission rates and SAT scores in their methodology, which means they are at least in part measuring the quality of the students rather than the quality of the institution. University politics may also influence the outcome of the rankings. In 1997, Rolling Stone published an article suggesting Reed College’s ranking artificially dropped after the school refused to return a survey the magazine sends to colleges before ranking them.
The rankings also have potential to perpetuate the status quo. The rankings create a perception that is often believed and reinforced by employers. If, for example, an employer sees one school ranked highly, he or she may make an effort to hire more employees from that school, which will in turn make the school be ranked highly again because its graduates are being placed. While that may be good for this particular institution, it is not fair.
It hardly seems necessary to rank schools annually. The rankings are rarely surprising. Most schools barely move from year to year. We don’t need to be told every year the Ivy League is “better” than us.
While I am aware these rankings are a huge revenue generator for U.S. News and World Report, I would like it very much if they stopped making them, or at least stopped making them every year. While the rankings may mean something, they are not measuring what they intend to measure. It’s possible to make the case these are not the rankings of the best schools, but rather of the best students. Students should not read too much into these rankings and certainly should not choose their school solely on the basis of these rankings. Universities should stop trying to appeal to these rankings so that, in the words of Reed President Colin Diver, they can “pursue their own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine.”
Spencer Lindsay (email@example.com) is a sophomore majoring in political science.