Where do we fit in?

The shiny new U.S. News & World Report 2008 edition of America’s Best Colleges has been out for a while now, containing the famous rankings of top schools.

The shiny new U.S. News & World Report 2008 edition of America’s Best Colleges has been out for a while now, containing the famous rankings of top schools. Hundreds of the country’s universities have again been ranked and filed every which way, and surprise surprise, Princeton, Harvard and Yale have again taken the top three.

This report has sort of been a rite of passage for nervous high school upperclassmen for a couple decades now. Searching desperately for that idea of “a good school,” they turn to the convenience of numbers. Sadness.

It’s ironic that one of the first paragraphs describing the rankings is, “Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers.” And yet, with the weight that these rankings carry, the way schools blare their scores in promotional material, and the frenzy with which hopeful undergrads-to-be attach themselves to prestigious schools, it’s worth questioning whether reducing the college experience to mere numbers is what the report has done.

The U.S. News college rankings have come under an increasing amount of fire lately, and for good reason: They’re inherently flawed. The greatest weight is given to subjective peer assessments of a school’s programs (call me cynical, but perhaps there’s a chance for bias?), and substantial weight is also given to rates of acceptance and institutional endowment.

Portland’s very own Reed College was one of the first to actively speak out against the report in 1995. A page on their website devoted to the issue says, “Reed’s president, Colin Diver, cautions prospective students and parents against relying on rankings. Rankings, he says, are grounded in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality.”

“They are primarily measures of institutional wealth, reputation, influence, and pedigree,” he says. “They do not attempt, nor claim, to measure the extent to which knowledge is valued and cultivated on each campus. Reed doesn’t rank its students. Why should we participate in a survey that ranks colleges?”

Other colleges have added their voices to a growing sphere of concern. This June, presidents at a meeting of the Annapolis Group-an organization of liberal arts schools-largely concluded that the U.S. News Report was hurting higher education as a whole. The website www.insidehighered.com reported that these presidents said, “They view the magazine’s rankings as encouraging the wrong behaviors by colleges.”

Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College, said, “The presidents agree that prospective students must have accurate information about colleges, and there is no single measure of educational excellence … we would like to see the rankings improved … I hope that any rankings or templates of data will drive us to compete on the quality of education, access and citizenship, not just how many students we reject or how much money we spend.”

On a more troubling note, Inside Higher Ed also reported that the rankings have an effect on the amount of financial aid that schools give to students in need, as the U.S. News Report favors colleges with students that have high SAT scores and colleges that turn down a large number of applicants.

Frances Lucas of Millsaps College commented that this leads to schools trying to “purchase the academically meritorious students” by offering merit-based aid to students that might not need it. She went on to say, “I don’t know a single college president who gives merit aid who wouldn’t shift more money to low-income students if rankings weren’t in play.”

Those are scary words, and they prove the weight that these rankings carry. So what’s to be done? Obviously people have called on the rankings system to revamp its priorities. A majority of presidents in the Annapolis Group has decided to boycott the peer assessment portion of the report. And certainly other college guides exist.

But the idea of rankings is flawed at its core. I have a problem with anybody who thinks you can tier and divide schools into categories like “good” and “bad.” The college experience is so fantastically varied, and the needs of students vary accordingly.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Portland State (which the U.S. News Report ranked as a “fourth-tier” school, by the way). There are students that come here from more “prestigious” colleges to say that PSU works for them in ways their first school never could.

We’d do well to encourage our administration to join the growing crowd of colleges that are opting out of the rankings system. Education is too large and fluid a thing to be boiled down to numbers. A student’s search for the school that will best work for them should be based on their own needs and values, and not those of the U.S. News and World Report.