Numbers might lie

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

When applying to college, there is hardly a high school student that does not look at the U.S. News and World Report rankings of national universities. Every spring, the publication comes out with new rankings, sometimes doing the unthinkable and switching the order of Columbia University and the University of Chicago. (These schools are traditionally 4 and 5, and have developed a sort of rivalry in the U.S. News rankings.)

However, the U.S. News rankings are not the only measures of the nation’s “Best Colleges.” It seems as if every publication now has their own methodology and reason behind creating a college ranking. Princeton Review, the test company, has long produced a list of the 500 best colleges in the country. Websites like the Huffington Post and College Prowler pride themselves on nontraditional lists, like the “nerdiest schools” or schools with the hottest guys or girls. (This is an actual ranking on College Prowler. Case Western Reserve University ranks 533 and 703 on the guys’ and girls’ list respectively.)

Even the White House has joined the college ranking party. While not putting out an explicit ranking, the administration’s “College Scorecard” promises to help students “find out more about a college’s affordability and value so you can make more informed decisions about which college to attend.” The mission of this system is nearly identical to the explicit rankings. They all boil down to influencing a high school student’s decision about where to attend college.

There are rankings that say this mission more explicitly than others though. They claim to base rankings on criteria college students find important. Forbes and Washington Monthly published these kind of rankings last week.

Washington Monthly, a monthly magazine published out of Washington, D.C., creates rankings based on social mobility and the university’s commitment to research and fostering an ethical society. In their most recent iteration, CWRU ranked ninth.

Alternatively, Forbes concerns itself primarily with the cost of school and the benefit students get by attending there. The biweekly magazine ranked CWRU as the 127th best school in the country in their newest list.

On their face these rankings might be rationalized. CWRU is an expensive school, but we do send future PhDs and Peace Corps members off in droves following graduation. Perhaps that explains the disparity between the two rankings. But it still does not answer the larger question about why these ranking matter in the slightest.

They matter because we like them to matter.

Just as the internet has been taken over by the ever popular “listicle,” college rankings remove the action of distilling information from a paragraph and turn it into an easier-to-grasp form that rewards readers with nearly immediate information gratification. In this way, college rankings are perhaps taking the nation’s best students—the most promising young minds—and allowing them to get off easy.

In order to decide whether to go to Harvard or Princeton, Georgetown or Tufts, or CWRU or Penn State, publications like U.S. News, Washington Monthly, Forbes and the like present students with a seemingly immediate answer instead of forcing them to decide based on more than a ranking and a stock photo.

I cannot say this without revealing the largest of caveats though. We are all hypocrites on this issue. I would imagine that most people reading this are of a similar opinion that college rankings have gotten a bit old. They do more harm than good some might say. I would be one of them.

At the same time though, as I prepare my law school applications, I am most certainly relying on the U.S. News Law School rankings as if they were my bible. Sure, I am also researching the employment figures, average debt load and financial aid information, but U.S. News is a perpetual bookmark on all the electronics I own.

Our mentality comes down to this: “Rankings are painful, arbitrary and overwhelmingly dumb, but OH MY GOD THEY ARE SO GREAT. I’M GOING TO GO TO THE BEST SCHOOL EVER!!!” I imagine that line being read in the voice of a 16-year-old girl getting her first car.

The sad truth is that rankings like these are not going away. They make information easy to understand, and do serve as a sort of front line on the search for the right college, law school, medical school, etc. But they are hardly the extent one should search.

The school that ranks 150th on one list might be the right one for you, just as the school that ranks first may not be.

As the school year progresses and rankings come out more frequently before the big U.S. News revelation in the spring, remember to take each ranking with a healthy dose of skepticism. Most students at CWRU would happily argue against the 127th we received and heartily for the ninth. In the end, it is a number, and the college experience is about so much more than the number your school got assigned this year. Unless it is tuition. That number does count.

Andrew Breland is the Observer’s senior opinion columnist. Contact him at