There is an irrefutable sense of comfort provided by numbers. Not only are they clear and understandable, but they are also universal: first is better than second, $1,000 is more than $100. Numbers are reassuring and leave little to no room for argument or debate; their figures are facts we can trust.
While high school seniors and their families wade through the college applications process over the course of the fall, millions more tune in for the release of a slew of annual college rankings, most of which are published between July and September. Year after year, few generate as much anticipation as U.S. News and World Report’s Annual College Rankings, which were released last week.
While the report contains several different categorized lists, it is the one titled “Best National Universities” that draws the most attention from both students and non-students alike. This year, U.S. News and World Report stuck with tradition, awarding the top three places on the list to famously selective Ivy League institutions Princeton University, Harvard University and Yale University, respectively.
While the rankings are always met with some amount of backlash from concerned educators and parents, the response this year seemed even more negative than in the past. Critics cited several factors for their objections, including the list’s increased focus on SAT scores and their general favoritism toward exclusive and costly institutions. Most commentators concluded their statements with a common plea: stop trying to brand America’s universities with a single rating.
Their request is not unfounded. Universities in general tend to be very similar, whether by comparison of size, course offerings or student body. What makes them special are the little things — accelerated professional programs, study abroad opportunities, local atmosphere — the things that are often skipped over by ranking methodologies.
Additionally, rankings tend to favor expensive institutions that are out of reach for many American families. One year at Princeton, U.S. News and World Report’s top choice college for quality and value, rounds out at about $55,000. California State University at Chico, on the other hand, falls under the $20,000 per year mark for both tuition and board.
These concerns, combined with the evidence of increasing college-related stress among teens, make it easy to discount rankings and join the push to ignore them. However, those who choose to pay attention should also consider that the true purpose of these rankings, according to publishers, is to help families start their college searches.
Next to the list of rankings on its website, U.S. News and World Report gives an explanation of the methodology used to evaluate and compare universities. In addition to acknowledging the difficulties involved in assigning rankings to such complex institutions, the article states its mission: “For families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money, the rankings provide an excellent starting point for the search.”
While the statement may serve as a disclaimer for the publishers, it also serves as an honest reminder. Rankings don’t exist just to promote the already legendary Ivy League; they also aim to encourage thoughtful and thorough research of America’s diverse selection of colleges. Beyond the “Best National Universities” list, U.S. News and World Report also creates rankings based on region and “up-and-comer” status, both of which showcase universities and colleges that are lesser-known but deserving of recognition.
Above all, debate over these rankings remind students to be realistic; while not everyone can attend U.S. News and World Report’s “best American university,” American teens can find a place that best fits them and their family. Quality can never be perfectly measured, as it is up to the individual to pick the college best for him and make the most out of the opportunities it offers.
Annika Ulrich is a senior at Aragon High School in San Mateo. Student News appears in the weekend edition. You can email Student News at email@example.com.