Opinion
Assessment Commentary

When Rankings Go Wrong

By Marty Elkins — March 13, 2008 4 min read

Americans never seem to tire of Top 10 lists—of books, movies, news events, vacation destinations, just about everything. Each year, beginning in January but stretching indefinitely, our many media organizations churn out this shorthand summing-up of so much into so little. Busy like everyone else, we love a little help on what to read, what to watch, or where to go for some sun.

But when it comes to where to go to college, a complex decision with a variety of significant consequences, Top 10 lists and other rankings can do more harm than good. Where do we look to see the damage? In the eyes of the students we counsel and their parents, who have plenty of anxiety about their children’s futures without anyone ranking the next steps in their lives.

Secondary schools’ college counselors are particularly concerned this school year because recent rankings by two otherwise respected and thoughtful publishers have made matters worse, in part because the results were just plain wrong. First, The Wall Street Journal published in late November an article headlined “How to Get Into Harvard,” which purported to rank secondary schools based on the percentage of their graduates who had matriculated at an idiosyncratic list of eight colleges.

When it comes to where to go to college, Top 10 lists and other rankings can do more harm than good.

After my group protested the concept and mischaracterization of what we do as independent-school college counselors, the reporter contacted members of our organization to follow up to correct some of the statistics. Despite our strong encouragement that the Journal abandon its rankings and do a much more thoughtful piece on the college-admissions process, without further comment, the Journal published an updated list. Whether or not the numbers are now right, the concept remains wrong. Such rankings and stories feed the frenzy too many already feel about which colleges are “the best,” while discarding hundreds of other high-quality places as implicitly “not quite as good.” Even accurate numbers compound that fundamental error.

Also in late November, U.S. News & World Report was wrong in its attempt to rank America’s public high schools by falsely listing Vermont’s Montpelier High School as No. 5 nationally, when the publication’s formula actually places the school in a very different position. The celebrations in Vermont’s capital were premature, because the magazine miscalculated. But the more important question remains: Why do we need to rank schools and colleges at all?

Some publications that rank schools and colleges say they do it to promote accountability; others say they do it to provide information to consumers. Those of us who work with students and parents have grave doubts about these motivations, doubts that were confirmed when The Wall Street Journal’s reporter told one of us that “this type of story gets a lot of readers.” Indeed. Our belief is that rankings exist not because they help, but because they sell.

We’re not alone in that belief. In a recent New York Times column, Samuel G. Freedman noted that U.S. News executives regard their rankings as a “franchise,” one that Freedman goes on to identify as “a centerpiece of what we might call the Anxiety Industry.” Further on, the magazine is said to have pinned “its business model on rankings.”

We who work with impressionable young adults and their parents do not esteem “business models,” because we see anxiety at work every day. We do college counseling, not corporate consulting. We wish the media would stop placing profits before people, raising anxiety with rankings. Instead, we would urge the media to provide a true service to readers by gaining a better understanding of the work we do, reporting on the ways in which school counselors and college-admissions officers interact to serve young people.

If there is any type of ranking to be developed, it can only be a personal one, done based on one’s own unique set of criteria.

The reality we see every day is that the choice of a college is a very personal matter, one that takes into account many different factors that all combine, sometimes mysteriously, into what we can only characterize as the right “fit.” Rankings never help us find that fit, for they misuse data in suggesting one can capture a general reality for all applicants, failing to understand the great differences we see between individual human beings trying to make sense of their own situations amid a wide array of options.

If there is any type of ranking to be developed, it can only be a personal one, done based on one’s own unique set of criteria. No one ranking “fits” all.

Far more important than where one goes to college is how well one engages with the opportunities afforded by that college, how much one learns at that college, and how well one is prepared for further study and adult life’s real challenges. Some highly ranked places turn out tragically wrong for students who manage to get in but find the burden of additional competition just too much to bear, while less-publicized colleges turn out to be powerfully positive places for young people we know.

Each year, especially in the selective, college-preparatory, tuition-conscious schools where we work, we see students and parents who are vulnerable to the rankings-driven reasoning that they must matriculate at a certain set of places; otherwise, goes the conventional wisdom, they will have failed at someone else’s notion of what constitutes early adult success.

We understand the desire to simplify the complex, to quantify the qualitative, to post a Top 10 or a ranking to satisfy the market-driven need to sell ad space in publications. But we reject doing so when it comes to colleges and schools. We who counsel young people and their parents would urge that such ratings and rankings concern matters of entertainment, not the educations of individual human beings who need more real help from the adults in their lives.

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