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Evaluating College Evaluation

Cartoon by Emma Lu

Cartoon by Emma Lu

From the “trending” list on BuzzFeed to the “recommended for you” list on The New York Times, we see ranking lists all around us, and especially online. Lists are often a great resource: They condense data and conveniently provide us with the essence of synthesized information. For example, one glance at the #1 song on the top charts can tell us that the song is popular, whether that conclusion is made according to download data or otherwise. While the list’s method of simplification works well for single-variable summary, it may run the risk of misrepresenting or even oversimplifying that which requires more complex analysis. And what better instance of oversimplification than college rankings?

Every year, major publications such as U.S. News and World Report, Forbes, and Niche release rankings of the “best colleges.” These relatively easy to navigate lists are as comprehensible as any other, but it is risky to take the ranking at face value when we instead should be questioning how these websites formulated the rankings (or whether it is even possible to conduct enough research to accurately rank “best colleges”). When we seek out these rankings, we are looking for the answer to a qualitative question: Which college is the best? But we fail to recognize that these deceptively simplified lists are derived from purely quantitative research that cannot possibly capture the experience each college has to offer. The first result from a search for “college rankings” on Google is the U.S. News’s ranking list that has over 2.6 million unique viewers and 18.9 million general views to the homepage per day. Even though this website has become so popular, its viewers may not know what goes into the arranging of the ranked colleges, and they may be surprised to find that the list’s dependency on strictly numerical data does not allow for a “holistic” rank that these lists suggest. The factors weighed heaviest in U.S. News’s ranking calculators are undergraduate academic reputation, student retention, faculty resources, and student selectivity, which together add up to 77.5% of the total rank.

While it isn’t wrong to evaluate colleges based on this numerical data, there seems to exist a disconnect between these statistics and the ultimate conclusion regarding which college is the best. Parents and students who look for these rankings seek out an informed way to place colleges on a presumably standardized scale, but the ranking skips the informative part, simply assigning a position in the college hierarchy without making clear how that conclusion was drawn.

However, a new development from the Department of Education offers a step in the right direction, providing data in an easily understandable format. Rather than just outright ranking the schools, the new site allows users to synthesize the information for themselves. This site provides statistics such as average earnings after attending college, average debt, and average monthly loan payments. In a White House address, President Barack Obama said, “[It] will help all of us see which schools do the best job of preparing America for ‘success.’” Even though this initiative gives students access to information they have never previously had, the data focuses mainly on student outcomes from colleges, thereby failing to inform students about the actual experiences offered at specific colleges. The data projects a superficial and biased portrayal of college onto the rest of society.


Despite the rationale in favor of objective information that lets students ultimately decide for themselves which college would suit them best, society has established a construct of higher education that pressures students to select colleges based not on their own needs but on an expectation-based set of values and ideals. Students may find themselves motivated to apply to schools that suggest prestige, effectively disregarding other factors more conducive their success at a university. Information sources should be reformed in order to promote an unbiased search customized to allow students to make accurate, personalized judgments. But perhaps more importantly, students themselves should examine their motivation in applying to certain schools. The aim is to find a place where you will feel good, not a place where you only look good for attending a particular college. Moreover, being more personally invested in a college allows students to write more convincingly and authentically on their applications.

College is not one size fits all, and the success some students have at certain colleges might not exist for other students. Students are as unique as are colleges, and in assessing colleges, applicants must look at not only the college but also themselves. Considering the unique and particular needs of each student, online resources should only provide statistical information instead of making conclusions such as which school is the “best college.” And to truly get a sense of each college’s offerings, students should be encouraged to explore programs that a particular school offers, visit the campus, and judge for themselves in terms of their own preferences and needs.

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