I did it for four years and hated myself for it. Every new college that I heard of, I would google the same thing: “X University rankings”. And after the couple milliseconds it takes for Google to pull up an arbitrary figure to answer my impatient call, I would make an instant judgement upon the school, a multi-building, multi-department institute with thousands of people, dozens of programs, and a myriad of pros and cons I couldn’t possibly fathom in that moment.
I did that for four years, hated myself for it, and kept doing it. I kept doing it because it made things so easy. The prospect of having all those colleges lined up from zero to one hundred right before my lazy eyes was convenient and compelling. How could it not be? Comparing schools becomes as easy as 2nd-grade math. The warring higher education system of an entire nation is laid to rest under my scrolling thumb. It’s irresistible sometimes.
Further research and rational thinking weakened the grip college rankings had on my mind, and by the time I was actually getting results back from schools, I cared much less about that label. That’s not to say I didn’t care at all—but I believe I struck the right spot of caring only as much as I should. So I put together this article to organize my thoughts and knowledge on the matter, as a final plea to those juniors now heading into this scary and often toxic process: try to keep the rankings out of sight, out of mind.
2. The Flawed Logic of Those Magical Numbers
The first truth is that ranking colleges is not possible. Well, it might be possible to say Harvard is a better school than Idaho State University. But what I’m talking about is the kind of rankings that some Korean parents are prone to see: like how Johns Hopkins is ranked 4 spots higher than Vanderbilt, or that UCLA is “tied with” Washington University in St. Louis. Surely anyone could see the ridiculousness of perceiving based on rankings alone that “JHU is better than Vanderbilt” or “UCLA is the same as Wash-U”. That’s plain silly.
Did you know that colleges is not the only thing that U.S. News & World Report ranks? Their various “rankings” provide them with most of their website traffic. Some of their other lists include “100 best jobs” (software developer is #1) and “world’s best places to visit” (Paris takes the top spot). They attempt to use objective measures such as pay or job satisfaction for jobs and hotel quality for travel destinations, but you don’t hear anyone claiming that everyone should try to be a software developer and everyone should go to Paris, because that would be stupid. Career paths depend on personal preferences and so do travel destinations. I don’t doubt that software developers make lots of money and have stable jobs. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of Paris tourists end up loving the city. But that doesn’t mean the so-called “rankings” dictate what jobs or cities are objectively superior over others and therefore should be preferred by everyone. (Cartographer is ranked #18, by the way, and I’ll be damned if as many people fought to become cartographers as people fight to get into Notre Dame, which is apparently the 18th best university in the U.S.)
It’s the same for colleges. Of course academic reputation matters. But ranking metrics can only take into account measures for which there is an objective scale of bad to good. This includes things like student-faculty ratio (the smaller the better) or average SAT score (higher the better). It makes sense to compare these things, but it also means there is no way to compute factors such as school size, athletic involvement, or location. Some people want to go to school in an idyllic, secluded rural town, while some cannot stay away from a booming city. Some can’t stand the snow, some can’t stand being surrounded only by white people, some can’t stand not having frats to join, and others couldn’t care less. Of course rankings can’t take all these things into account—because it’s a matter of difference, not superiority. And at that point, how much weight should these numbers hold? Maybe Idaho State is better than Harvard. Maybe a student from Idaho simply wants to study close to home. Maybe a student has more financial aid from Idaho State. Maybe (hold onto your hats) the student simply doesn’t want to study at Harvard. That student’s choice is as valid as any other’s.
3. The U.S. News & World Report: Shadows & Corruptions
If you’ve delved into the college process a little bit, you’ve probably noticed there’s more than one set of rankings. Times Higher Education, Niche, Forbes… all may sound familiar. But the end-all-be-all trump card of college rankings is the list by U.S. News & World Report that I’ve been referring to. It is cited the most, referred to the most, and generally taken as the standard set of rankings. So let’s delve into this one in particular to point out all the shady spots.
They tinker with the methodology every year so people pay attention to changes in their rankings. Ultimately, they’re just trying to get people to buy their magazines. So they weigh various factors slightly differently so that universities end up “moving” a few spots each year, when nothing inherent about those schools have changed at all—but, gasp, it causes such a buzz if Stanford “goes down” two spots!
They contribute to pushing tuition up. Their methodology gives more points to colleges that spend more money per student. Because schools care so much about ranking higher on the list, they spend more money and raise tuition to cover the costs.
Colleges game the system. Because the list is so well-read and highly regarded, it encourages unethical activity among colleges just to rank a little higher. Claremont McKenna was slammed in 2012 when they admitted they had been submitting false SAT scores to publications such as U.S. News. Even outside of such outrageous acts, colleges are pushed to do things like turn away capable applicants on purpose to increase yield or aggressively encourage applications just to turn away more people, because of course, brownie points for lower acceptance rates.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A whopping 20% of their rankings are based on “expert opinion”, which is basically high school counselors and academics ranking the schools according to their personal view. This is supposed to reflect general academic reputation. Well, guess what, most of those people’s perception of academic reputation is derived heavily off the U.S. News list. And that’s supposed to contribute to… the U.S. News list.
This only begins to scratch the surface of what’s wrong with the methodology and general system. The worst thing, though, is that it contributes to a sense of status anxiety and encourages toxic competition, which most high schools don’t need any more of. Some things can’t be perfectly quantified—among those things are university quality and the amount of emotional distress college rankings cause across the globe.
If you’re still not convinced what a sham college rankings are, I would encourage readers to read this article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell (it’s lengthy but enjoyable, well-written, and potentially eye-opening): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-order-of-things
4. What Can Rankings Actually Be Good For?
Let me push pause on the angry-senior-mode bashing. To be fair, college rankings can be a useful tool for students or parents for which the American higher education scene is completely foreign. It provides a rough sketch of what well-known institutions are out there, and perhaps can serve as a starting point for a student beginning to research colleges if they know close to nothing to begin with. Besides, if the rankings were indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy of vague reputation level and nothing more, even that could be useful. Much of society functions based on “vague reputation level” anyway, and I am not here to discount the potential importance of name value.
Beyond that, however, it is essential the college search process remains trained onto its authentic purpose: to provide a home for a student that will intellectually and socially nurture a young adult for four years. That task is much more complex than a numerical list may suggest, and it is critical that juniors entering the process keep their priorities in mind. So rankings, while sometimes useful, need to take a back seat in the decision process. The strength of specific programs, campus setting, athletics, greek life, weather and location—ideally, all such things would be considered.
5. The Bigger Issue: at KIS, We’re Bred To Care
Besides the inherent flaws in the attempt to rank colleges, the KIS climate exacerbates these limitations to turn them into active problems. If no one cared about rankings, they would be harmless. They could be like a Buzzfeed list of “26 best rom-coms of all time”—entertaining to read, a source of inspiration in times of boredom, but recognized for its subjectivity and holding close to no authority on the actual subject at hand. That wouldn’t harm anyone.
But the way some KIS students and parents respond to rankings can be harmful. Acronyms like “HYPS” schools (which is really nothing but an arbitrary set of four very well-known schools that are very different from one another) or the Ivy League (again, eight schools that share an athletic league and not much more in common) float around casually, there is a toxic trend of parental bragging rights (or shame, on the negative end of the spectrum), and the general frenzy drives some families to spend tens of thousands of dollars on consulting services that guide and sometimes near-falsify student resumes. SAT cheating scandals. College essays “heavily edited” (basically drafted) by outsiders. Gossip on who’s applying where. Pressure not to apply so others have a better chance. In terms of college admissions culture, we should be ashamed of ourselves. There is a certain irony in how the brightest people fight for spots at schools that are considered the pinnacle of higher education, and that in this fight, students and parents end up going down and dirty, stooping to their lowest levels.
We can do better. I know it. We can do better than working ourselves into hysteria and stressing each other out.
So what happens if, perhaps, you chased your own idea of a good school instead of trusting a random magazine’s idea of one? A quick interview with ’18 KIS alum Judy Jahng revealed that when she first wanted to apply to Northeastern, she did not have much support from the people around her, since it was ranked lower than what they thought she should aim for. But she knew her priority in a college education was getting real-life work experience and access to career opportunities, found Northeastern’s co-op program, applied, was accepted, and chose to enroll. This is an example of someone that took a step away from obsessing over rankings and found what was right for her.
I don’t have an absolutely bleak outlook on this. In fact, most people I know in my class have been pretty careful about rejecting rankings when other factors were clearly more important. But the culture of putting emphasis on prestige has definitely been tangible throughout the process and a stressor for many.
6. Moving Forward
Sadly, I am one of the biggest beneficiaries of this name game. It would make me a liar if I claimed I haven’t perceived the changes in how people treated me after being accepted into universities. It would make me a pretentious liar if I claimed that didn’t make me feel good sometimes. I’ve been hired as a tutor without having to present further qualifications or proof of experience. The least I could do is be honest about it.
Here is the real takeaway I hope to leave you with: as KIS students, we live in an inherently privileged bubble. It’s a community of internationally educated students who can afford the hefty tuition of a private high school and eventually a degree from a foreign university. The bubble drives many people here into insanity, picking at the difference between a “top-20” and a “top-30” school. But the world is much wider and life is much less predictable than our bubble may suggest. Less than 7% of the global population ever graduates from college. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that we’ve simply been conditioned to care so deeply about certain things because we’ve been part of a small, self-selecting group for so long, but that it’s also within our power to step away from that.
I write this thinking of the juniors I care about. I write this as a plea, knowing college rankings will, for all the wrong reasons, deeply bother or deeply motivate some of those individuals that I love and wish a happy future for. I wish I’d stopped caring about rankings much sooner than I did and I wish the same thing for my underclassmen. This is also a plea for all students to stop judging others based on the ranking of the school they end up going to. It has no bearing on how happy they will be on campus come this fall. It has no bearing on their strength of character. It has no bearing on their future success.
I guess it’s easy for me to write this, having had fortune on my side during the college process. But as I face an impending final decision on which school to commit to, I know that if I was the kind of person to choose the school that’s “ranked higher” for that sole reason, I would never have gotten into either of those schools in the first place. I got into those schools at least partially because of my genuine desire for education and self-betterment, for recognizing what my unique needs are, and to me, college rankings are an antithesis to those things.
-Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)
Featured Image: Yale University