Earlier this week, the New York Times introduced an online tool that allows users to “build your own college rankings.” By prioritizing data points like “high earnings,” “low sticker price,” and “racially diverse,” a prospective college student (or parent) can create their own college list in a way that feels like having Spotify spit out a personalized playlist. By adjusting the sliders for each metric on the tool just so, a gleaming possibility of college futures is magically produced.
It’s hard not to start sliding the bars, and so I did, increasing importance for earnings, academic profile, racial diversity, and economic mobility, and de-emphasizing party scene, athletics, and low net price. The result? A top ten list that included UCLA, Stanford and MIT, along with less high-profile schools like New Jersey Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, and CUNY Bernard M Baruch College.
The purpose of the innovation, as described by Times Opinion writer Frank Bruni is to “encourage college-bound students to pause, reflect deeply on what sort of experience they truly want, factor in what’s logistically and financially realistic for them and consider a list of colleges assembled along those lines, with fuzzy and subjective metrics like prestige eliminated from the equation.”
In other words, to discourage students from pinning up a copy of U.S. News and World Report’s annual college ranking above their bed, committing it to memory, and placing all of their future hopes and dreams on schools that carry enormous amounts of prestige but may be wildly unaffordable and not the right “fit” in all sorts of ways.
This, of course, is a tall order. And U.S. News and World Report is only part of the problem. Prestige and status surrounding American colleges and universities has become so embedded in our culture, even as annual college sticker prices soar far above the average household income, that doing away with a fetishized list at this point is akin to putting out a few square feet of flames in a forest fire. The blaring emphasis on just how “selective” colleges have become, after all, is advertised by the colleges themselves in the form of their acceptance rates that plummet further towards zero with each admissions cycle. With or without U.S. News, Harvard still only accepts 4 percent of its applicants. Stanford: 3.9 percent. And so on.
This doesn’t mean the Times’ system—which surveyed 900 colleges and universities, obtaining information from the Department of Education, niche.com, and Opportunity Insights—isn’t necessary and valuable. It’s also the latest sign of how much frustration has been building up against the hegemony of U.S. News’ list, which has been cranking out college rankings since 1983, relying largely on data reported by the schools themselves. (this year the rankings included 1,800 schools.) Lately institutions have begun pushing back, arguing that the list over-emphasizes criteria like institutional wealth and “reputation” over more relevant data points. Last year Yale and Harvard law schools stopped participating in the rankings (Harvard additionally criticized a new metric measuring the amount of student debt a student graduates with), leading several other institutions to follow suit. Medical schools, including Harvard’s, Stanford’s, and Columbia’s, also pulled out. And Colorado College not longer shares its data for the national rankings. There was also a scandal when Columbia was accused of providing false data to beef up its rating.
The only hitch is that all of these schools are still included in U.S. News’ rankings, and most readers presumably have no idea as to the behind-the-scenes drama. The list is still the list. The craving for Princeton (No. 1 this year), MIT (#2), and Harvard (#3) lives on.
Arguably the most effective way to put an end to all of this nonsense, or at least cause a decent dent, is for universities to cease publishing their acceptance data, as well as for a mandate to be put in place limiting the number of applications a student can submit each year. With students now regularly applying to 20 colleges or more—a trend accelerated by many schools going test optional due to the pandemic—application rates are higher than they’ve ever been, driving down acceptance rates even further. There’s also the mental health toll, and logistical nightmare, of working on multiple applications, not to mention visiting schools, participating in interviews, and all of the hurdles involved in applying to college. “Pausing and reflecting deeply” when considering a school? How is it even possible in today’s derby?
The Times’ tool is a step in the right direction and is introducing some much needed nuance and, yes, reflection, to the process. Hopefully more publications and information sources, and universities themselves, will keep taking more.
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