The Higher Ed Horserace

Banners. When I was visiting college campuses as a high school student, I remember seeing banners. They were hung proudly from university entrances, alumni halls, and admissions offices. Our university is the best. Here are our rankings to prove it.

College rankings vary among various publications. This presents a challenge to parents as they try to determine the best school for their children. Each survey highlights different aspects of higher education. It can be frustrating for parents to go through these lists and end up with mixed results. There is too much emphasis placed on these surveys. Although high rankings may appear to give universities credibility and prestige, they ignore many important aspects of the collegiate experience.

It is impossible for one publication to create a comprehensive account of college life. As a result, lists are narrow in scope but broad in what they claim to represent. The tragic flaw of these publications is their assumption that all students and parents search for the same criteria in a college. Similarly, it suggests that all schools should strive to offer a similar education. By designating specific measurements as part of their evaluation, these surveys set marks that they feel universities should strive to achieve. In order to remain competitive in rankings, schools are forced to amend their mission and objectives to meet this benchmark.

 By attempting to simplify the college search, these publications force schools to conform. They assume that all students, or at least the majority, agree on what is best. Since people have a variety of reasons for attending college, schools should aim to meet different needs. A diverse landscape of higher education institutions is necessary so that each student can find a university that meets his or her needs as an individual. The goal of these lists, if they are to exist at all, should be to characterize schools, not rank them. This would allow both universities and prospective students to maintain their individualism.

Inevitably, colleges end up competing with one another over virtually meaningless numbers. By designating a #1 ranking, surveys create an idealized university. There is not one strategy that has proven consistently successful, which accounts for the variability among publications. In trying to identify what is best for all students, individualism is lost. And yet, this competition–this race to the top–is reinforced by the misguided faith placed in these lists. Now is the time to put students’ needs back on the agenda. Rankings are not synonymous with success. The banners on university walls do not guarantee happiness, a good paying job, or even a robust college experience. When determining what is best, students must decide for themselves.

Meghan Gary| Bravo Group | Pittsburgh


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