On the Value of College Rankings

Like most Americans, I like rankings. I can tell you the top-ranked roast pork sandwich in Philadelphia (John's), the NBA's all-time leading three-point shooter (Ray Allen), and the world's tallest waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela). For me, like so many people, rankings provide a sense of certainty in a complex world that moves faster by the minute. Yet what do rankings mean?

In an issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues persuasively that most ranking schemes, including college rankings, tell us mostly about whoever is doing the ranking. That is, in order to set up a ranking system, the ranker must choose and emphasize criteria in ways that reveal implicit value assumptions. Gladwell says that most U.S. college rankings tell you which colleges have amassed great wealth and prestige, not which college will help you learn what you need to know to live the life you want.

A Canadian by birth, Gladwell is skeptical of American status hierarchies, including--especially--American college rankings. Gladwell's skepticism is warranted. Yet step into the kitchen of nearly any upper-middle-class American family with a sixteen-year-old child, and you will almost certainly find one, if not several, sources of college rankings. We Americans want our kids to have a leg up on other kids, so we push and push like Tiger Mothers and Fathers for them to win admission to the highest-ranked colleges and universities. Meanwhile, colleges and universities, for their part, strive to climb the rankings, knowing that if they do their alumni will donate more money to school endowment funds, thus making it easier for the colleges to maintain their rankings and so attract top students and faculty. And on and on.

College rankings are not utterly without value. Harvard is famous for a reason: it is a great school. And college rankings, as imperfect as their methodologies may be, hold schools accountable to a demanding market. Many a school has served tastier food or streamlined its registration process in hopes of looking good in the college guides.

The trick with college rankings, then, is not what they give us, but rather what we bring to them. We want a list to tell us that we are smart, that we belong to an exclusive club, or that we are attentive and supportive parents. We, as students and parents, want validation for our efforts. More than that, we are looking for reassurance that we will be getting top value for top dollar: with high-ranking colleges now charging somewhere north of $45,000 a year, we want to know what we're getting into for all that expense--or debt.

Let me suggest turning our gaze the other way: instead of focusing so intently on external rankings of colleges or graduate schools, maybe students and parents should look more closely at the value they bring to whichever school they end up attending. And I don't mean by this suggestion to say that students and parents should obsess over class rank or grade point average or 400-meter hurdle times.

Go, strive, be the best you can, achieve all that you can achieve. This is America, after all. But try to balance all that striving, all that concern about rankings, with a healthy attention to your own growth (or your child's growth) as a person. Whether you are a high school student, or a parent, or a young professional headed to graduate school, take note of how well you share what is already great about you. Trust deeply in your own value, and believe that by sharing that inner greatness with others, by engaging the world around you with love and commitment, others will recognize that value and want you to be a part of what they do.

After twenty-two years of teaching and advising students and parents, I can say with confidence that the process of admissions is so much more about the student than the school. I tell people all the time, if a college has any kind of a strong name, then chances are that even if you slave away for four years, twenty-four hours a day, you will not be able to learn even a small fraction of what that college can teach you. This is not to say that you shouldn't try for the "best" school you can find; just that you shouldn't waste your time and energy obsessing over the rankings of, say, Wesleyan versus Vassar versus Haverford.

Keep your eye on what is truly important: that you are ready to do your best once you get where you are going. In the end, how you do is so much more important than where you go. Trust me when I tell you that the top companies and law schools and medical schools and graduate schools look for candidates at a large number of colleges, including some that you've probably never even heard of or that you might look down upon if you have. Talent is everywhere, and so are brains. Work hard, believe in yourself, trust in your ability, and do what you do with love.

Admissions is a little like the seventh-grade cafeteria. You can either stand in the middle of the room, tray in hand, sweating the popularity rankings of the tables all around, or you can take a deep breath, look for a table with some nice folks who have a lot in common with you, then smile and take your place among new friends. It's up to you.

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