College rankings: an increasingly meaningless metric

U.S. News & World Report came out with its annual rankings of colleges and universities, reigniting the ongoing debate over the validity of such designations. College rankings have become somewhat of a hallmark for the magazine and are eagerly awaited each fall, even though they tend to remain more or less the same. The algorithms used to determine where schools rank, however, are at best irrelevant and at worst detrimental to students applying to schools.

U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are designed to have the same rotation of schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale at the top of the list. This should come as no surprise, given that “reputation” comprises 22.5 percent of the criteria used to determine a school’s ranking.

The perceived legitimacy of the magazine’s rankings are affirmed by the presence of such schools, while these schools’ reputations are bolstered by landing at the top of the list, a type of “circular logic” as described by Nicholas Thompson of The Washington Monthly.

The rankings put quite a bit of stock in selectivity, so much so that schools are motivated to encourage as many people to apply as possible, knowing that they will not accept most of them. Graduation and retention rates figure prominently as well, giving private schools with predominantly wealthy student bodies a heavy advantage over public schools.

Furthermore, the rankings place stock in amount of money spent per student. In an effort to land atop the list, schools will spend freely, forcing higher tuition rates and making it difficult for low-income students to graduate without staggering debt.

In the most recent rankings, Geneseo was named a Top Public School in the North. To be specific, Geneseo is the second-best public regional university in the North region. That jumbled mess of a non-accomplishment encapsulates the modus operandi of U.S. News & World Report. Colleges like the rankings because it gives them a sexy title to float around to prospective students, who make the mistake of putting stock in them when applying to schools. It is hard to fault them, though. Applying to college is certainly daunting, and students will latch onto anything that appears to make the application process easier.

Schools should follow the example of Reed College. Since 1995, Reed has withdrawn itself from consideration for U.S. News’ rankings, despite having earned high marks from the magazine in previous years. On the decision to remain ineligible, former Reed president Colin Diver wrote, “By far the most important consequence of sitting out the rankings game, however, is the freedom to pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine.”

More schools, Geneseo included, should do the same. There is no point in trying to win a game that has been fixed from the start.