The Risk of Rankings: A Dean’s Insight Into Finding the Right College Fit

When we apply to colleges or jobs, we want to be assessed fairly. And we probably don’t think that we can be fully summed up by numbers alone.

The world insists upon “metrics” by which institutions, and even people, are judged. But we don’t have to insist upon quantifying everything. When we think of the complexities, the subtleties, the essences of human beings, and even of institutions, we are reminded of the ways in which numbers are mostly beside the point when we’re trying to assess quality.

What the Rankings (Don’t) Tell Us

Colleges, like people, are different in interesting ways. They are complicated institutions, and they all have some equivalent of hearts and minds. Some play up the numbers, because they realize people want to know about (and attend schools with) certain metrics, and because so much importance has been given — unjustifiably, I would say — to the various rankings, especially those in U.S. News & World Report (which used to be a magazine and is now simply a ranking service).

Whom such rankings serve, and how well, are questions we must ask, because simple numerical rankings, and the thinking that supports them, reach very deeply into our culture of college-going. This is not primarily about the accuracy of the statistics offered — some, we know, have been fudged — but rather the fact that even accurate statistics don’t seem to relate to anything that we can think of as indicative of quality. The numbers of applicants, the admit and yield rates, and the percentage of alumni who contribute do not speak to schools’ relative quality.

We can and should question the premise that any set of numbers can tell us anything meaningful about the kind of learning, the kind of community, the kind of curriculum, or the kind of experience we can expect at a college.

How Colleges Look Beyond the Numbers

Arguing that we are more than — or are simply not — our test scores and grade point averages is entirely natural and appropriate, and colleges tend to recognize this (or, they say they do). With the aim of finding out what exists beyond students’ numbers, most selective colleges ask for essays, read teacher and counselor letters, attend to extracurricular and service commitments, and sometimes (less now than in the past), actually have someone on the admissions staff or in the alumni body talk to students.

Who knows what is really in your mind or heart? Admissions offices can’t, but they can care and do their best to understand you and what about you is most relevant to success in the colleges they represent.

The Risks of Rankings: A Two-Way Street

Pretending that numbers are likely to reveal what we most need to know — or, worse, that a single number, a ranking, can tell us about quality — makes decisions easy. But we don’t believe that we, as flesh-and-blood applicants, can be legitimately ranked. We may, in the fullness of a good admissions process, be judged as well as careful people can judge us, but not ranked. For good or bad, mostly for good, we actually have to search for important, sometimes hard-to-find, information to help us make difficult decisions.

Just as colleges evaluate candidates based on quantitative as well as qualitative factors, candidates should assess colleges along both of those axes. A college’s alumni giving rate should not determine whether a candidate applies to that school. Instead, prospective applicants should visit campuses (whenever possible); talk to students, professors, and graduates; and learn about the available activities and extracurriculars.

In other words, we should all endeavor to get a sense of the full picture before deciding about which school is the best fit for us. After all, schools often do — and always should — extend us the same consideration.