I might be in college, but I’m reliving the stress of college application season. One of my friends is a senior in high school and feels immense pressure to live up to their own expectations.
They don’t believe that they can make it into some of their preferred universities. I asked them why they thought that. Their overwhelming reason was that most of the schools they’re applying to are elite schools.
Like many other prospective college students, I looked at any ranking list I could find to determine where it would be best to spend my next four years. For many, deciding what to do with their lives after high school is the first major life choice they have ever made. The websites and lists with ratings for practically everything from dining hall quality to academics are overwhelming.
High school students pursuing higher education at a so-called elite university want to make an informed decision. It’s staggering for kids to come into a college search with minimal information. There are thousands of post-secondary education institutions in the United States alone. How could they possibly make the right choice without somewhere to start?
The U.S. News & World Report is practically the gold standard for college rankings. Even though they also report on rankings for other industries, their flagship is their verdict on higher education. Other sites like Niche and Forbes, to name just a few, also jump into the mix.
But these rankings are important to school administrators, too. Schools love to boast about their highly-ranked programs and top standings in this or that list. Having a superior ranking in a specific category is tied to institutional reputation.
It is genuinely baffling how much influence U.S. News has on the world of higher education. Their effect on massive college machines worth billions of dollars trickles down to the children who want entrance into the machine and, sometimes, external validation of their academic success.
These ranking systems misdirect the public by making monoliths out of universities. All of the lists mentioned above tend to have the same top-50 schools with a few outliers, but some positions vary enough to the point of confusion.
As an example, Boston University sits at No. 43 and No. 38 on U.S. News’ and Niche’s lists, respectively, but it’s ranked No. 48 on Forbes. The difference is not massive, but it could likely feel much larger to a prospective student.
A stranger example would be Brigham Young University, which sits comfortably at No. 35 on Forbes’ list, but doesn’t crack the top-50 on U.S. News or Niche.
While the top of the list is generally unchanged, U.S. News is making an active attempt to reweigh their evaluation, and the results from their 2023-24 rankings emphasize public schools more than ever before.
They chose to include new factors more focused on graduate success, leading to a few claims from private institution officials that U.S. News is putting their universities at a disadvantage to public schools — ironic, considering that graduate success is at least somewhat telling of the benefits of higher education.
Why do these lists hold so much power over administrators and students alike?
It’s mostly a matter of pride. It feels good to say that you go to a top-whatever school, even if it means nothing in actual practice.
I believed in prestige when I was a senior in high school, too. I decided that my local public school wasn’t good enough because it isn’t highly ranked. That mindset was deeply misinformed and reinforced by the people around me and the lists I pored over obsessively.
Colleges are really only good or bad depending on who you are. If you aren’t planning on doing something in STEM, why would you go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? The Ivy League is completely out of the question if you don’t have the financial resources to attend or if the college is not willing to provide you those resources. Quantifying “goodness” is futile.
If going to an “elite” university is important to you, then have at it. If you enjoy the name recognition that comes with Harvard University, Yale University or Stanford University, then the choice is yours. But we shouldn’t judge schools based on a number next to their name.