Can you rank an education?

College rankings are everywhere. When you look up any college or university, their ranking from U.S. News or The Princeton Review is bound to be one of the top results. Colleges even use these rankings in their marketing materials, boasting their high scores in “happiest students” or “best classroom experience.” Consequently, during the college application process, these lists are almost impossible to ignore. 

College ranking lists take many of a school’s qualities into account, such as professors, campus quality, and student happiness, and combine these in order to produce a final score. All of these colleges are then compared to produce the final rankings. However, despite the rankings changing every year, the top scorers always share a familiar set of characteristics – private, selective, and expensive. Of the top ten colleges on the U.S. News “best colleges” list, five of them are Ivy League. Even on the “best liberal arts colleges” list, which contains many lesser-known names, the top four colleges all hold acceptance rates below 20 percent, which is extremely selective.

This correlation between high-ranking colleges and low acceptance rates parallels the popular myth in the college world that the lower the acceptance rate, the better the school. Many colleges with low acceptance rates are excellent institutions; however, a low acceptance rate alone does not mean that a school is a good fit for every student. This myth can even perpetuate a cycle in which students apply to low acceptance rate institutions on the assumption that this indicates the college’s merit, and as more applications pour in, the acceptance rate gets even lower. Then, of course, the institution will appear even more prestigious, receive more applicants, and the cycle repeats until we see the astronomically low acceptance rates we are seeing today. And while this phenomenon is likely to exist for as long as acceptance rates are publicly released, it is hard not to see college ranking lists’ promotion of low-acceptance colleges as the “best” as a contributing factor. 

This focus on low-acceptance colleges also limits how helpful these lists actually are to students. These lists market themselves as a tool to help students through the difficult process of learning about colleges and deciding which schools to apply to; however, only a small minority of the students who use these lists are able to get into the colleges ranked as the “best”. Additionally, most of the high-ranking colleges are already incredibly well-known, which further diminishes the usefulness of these lists for students that are trying to discover new colleges. Finally, this hyper-focusing on low-acceptance colleges unintentionally communicates the message that students who cannot get into a low-acceptance college will be unable to get a good education. This is untrue; there are hundreds of colleges in the US which provide a great education, all while having acceptance rates above 50%.  

Aside from this focus on promoting low-acceptance colleges, the very principle of ranking colleges based on merit can pose problems. College is an incredibly personal decision, and every student is different. There is no “best” college for everyone. Many of the factors used to rank these colleges are also incredibly subjective. Take the “classroom experience” ranking, for example. Every student learns differently, and therefore, one student’s idea of a good classroom experience could differ entirely from another’s. This makes it nearly impossible to rank colleges based on classroom experience; yet, these lists still attempt it. 

Despite these negative impacts, college ranking lists are not useless; to many students, they are one of the only available resources to learn about colleges. Because of this, getting rid of these lists would likely be more harmful than keeping them. However, instead of getting rid of these lists, perhaps they could be restructured to focus on actually helping students. Instead of ranking colleges, colleges could be placed into specific categories to help students discover colleges that hold qualities they are interested in. For example, a STEM interested student could search for an unranked list of colleges with well-known engineering programs, and from there, they could determine which college is the best fit for them without being influenced by a ranking. College lists could also improve by promoting colleges with a diversity of acceptance rates, instead of focusing on colleges that only a minority of students can get into. A system like this would allow college ranking websites to actually deliver on their promise of helping students.