The Problem With College Rankings

1. Introduction

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

SKY Castle: What College, Success, and Love Really Mean

SKY Castle, a skyrocketing Korean Drama, is breaking through unprecedented ratings across the country. But what does this drama really tell us about our perceptions on success and love?

A daughter finds out that her mother is not her biological mother, a boyfriend finds out that his girlfriend cheated on him, a girl discovers that her rival’s mother’s step-sister’s nephew is her brother. These are some classic Korean drama plots, exaggerating daily events that may or may not happen in reality. However, SKY Castle, a skyrocketing drama in Korea that is reaching unprecedented popularity not only in Korea but also across Asia, breaks apart this classic representation of K Dramas. Captivating everyone from teens to 60-years-old, SKY Castle reveals one of the most sensitive topics in Korea, and frankly our lives.

Broadcasted from late November 2018, this 20 episode series trails the lives of four families whose children are mostly in high school. While all of them are elite families of doctors and lawyers, these four families each experience their own hardship and pain as they struggle to prepare their kids to enter college.

On the surface, SKY Castle may seem like the over-exaggerated reality of high schoolers journey in getting into elite colleges. However, when dissected further, this drama is not so much of a drama as it unveils on some of the bleak, hidden realities, touching upon the most uncomfortable and vulnerable part of our lives: college, success, and parental love.

SKY Castle is a reflection of our lives that makes us redefine life and love. (http://www.wikitree.co.kr/main/news_view.php?id=397833)

One of the key messages that this drama illustrates is the obsession we have with college —what it is, what it does, and what it disrupts. SKY Castle highlights this strong emphasis in addition to the greed and desire that parents, and sometimes students, too, have on getting into an elite college.

Main student characters in the drama who find their definition of success throughout struggles. (https://www.hellokpop.com/kdrama/k-drama-premiere-sky-castle/)

Many think that getting into a prestigious university equals prosperity and attending a name-value school brings some form of inexplicable joy into the home. But we can all agree that this socially valued norm can consume our thoughts, making us lose our own selves and definition of happiness. Just look at Ye-Suh’s father, a man who for so long focused on reaching the top position and recognition, slowly recognizing how striving straight for the top makes you lose simple things in life: love, joy, sorrow. Things that make us feel human.

In addition to focusing so much on college, SKY Castle also sheds light on our corrupt definition of success.

Sure, killing a rival shown in the drama may not seem realistic, but it does symbolize something: there is an unquenchable desire to win and be number one. Much like how we have been cultured to think that college defines one’s identity, we have constructed our culture to believe that winning someone is a sign of victory. As portrayed by Ki Joon and Seo Joon’s father, we believe that we must reach the top of the pyramid by stepping on others and getting up beyond them. We believe that we can only gain victory by how we compare to  the people around us. In fact, if we think about it, this notion of reigning in victory relative to those around us drives this drama’s plot; the motive of the students is to be ‘number one.’

The other bleak reality this drama uncovers is college entrance coordinators. Across the globe we have consulting groups who help students get into colleges, much like Kim Joo Young in the drama. However, we can often be too consumed by getting into a college that we might let those groups overtake our voice. It’s important to note here that I am by no means saying that consulting advisors or agencies are harmful or useless. I have seen and heard countless students be successful and happy with the coordinators help and I’m sure they do incredible work to support you  reaching your dreams. But we also need to remember to have our own say in our education and life.

Ye-suh’s mother shows desperation to the coordinator.

Ye-suh is virtually controlled by her coordinator, listening to her directions and suggestions rather than directing her own path. Like Ye-Suh’s life crumples throughout the episodes, we are vulnerable just like her to feel hopeless and helpless. Some agencies layout everything in linear order; you must do this and this to get this. But we don’t realize that not everything in life is a straight line. There’s curves, squiggles, slanted lines, perfect lines, and unfinished lines. We must remember to break away from that line drawn in front of you; make sure you control your direction because no one, not your mom not your consulting firm, will determine your future but you.

As exaggerated as it seems, the consulting agencies may in real life “control” you. http://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/201901081896712588

But perhaps the most important message of the drama, SKY Castle shares the warmth and commonality we all have: family love. All four families have different lives and personalities; they are all so distinctive that you can’t help it but ask one another, “ which one of the four moms is like yours?”

Despite the diversity of the four, all of them show family love as the common denominator. This universal feeling, the most powerful love that’s stronger than any other relationship, ties all the families together. Take Ye-suh’s mom for example. We feel anger and happiness toward this character for her cruel acts. But we are forced as viewers to empathize with her; after all, her daughter’s life is at risk. Just like any mom in the world, she is just trying to protect her daughter, urging the viewers to feel indecisive about her.

The tension and unconditional love a mother has for her kids. (http://www.christiantoday.co.kr/news/318871)
A mother having to give up on her daughter’s life to reveal the truth.

The unconditional love of the mother for her child is such a powerful feeling and emotion. It’s the mother’s love that takes in all the child’s sins and brings warmth to the cold soul. It’s the mother’s love that she gives life and breath to the child.

For me, I am fortunate and grateful to have a mother who understands and values my say in my path, who doesn’t make me feel bad about a low number, who doesn’t believe that success is defined by a certain acceptance. But I know that many of my peers and Korean students feel that their moms are pressuring them to achieve the highest; even as you are reading this, you might feel yourself emphasizing with Ye-suh more. But as this drama shows, regardless of which of the four families you seem to lie in, all mothers have the same desire for a child: to be successful in the real world and to find happiness. Sometimes, however, our definition of success may not line up, or maybe you’re like Soo-han and you don’t know what that looks like. That’s okay because that just means that you haven’t struggled enough to find that definition. But regardless, always remember the unconditional love that family has.

There is still so much to delve into in this drama, whether that’s the characterization, symbols, or shootings. But for me, as someone still struggling to find my own definition of success, SKY Castle lent me a perspective. It didn’t give me a solution to the doubts and uncertainties I hold, but it proved to me that I am not alone in this journey- that this is a universal experience we all feel. That joy, regret, shame, evil are all so human. Perhaps, the intro song We all lie aims to tell us the same.

I respect the writer for her audacity to write such a sensitive, veiled topic, to tell us how corrupt our definition of success is, and most importantly, to remind us the infinite power parental love holds.

– Sarah Se-Jung Oh (’19)

Featured Image: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2019/01/03/popular-south-korean-drama-sky-castle-blamed-for-inspiring-copycat-murder-of-doctor/

PSA: College Visits

You should definitely be checking out all of the colleges visiting KIS!

Why not Stanford?
Why not Stanford? (Tumblr)

Have you been signing up lately for all the college visits? Are you aware of the fact that various colleges from all over the world are visiting our school? If you have already signed up for some college visits through Naviance, you’re on the right track. If you have absolutely no idea what the last sentence meant, you have some reading (this article!) and signing up to do.

You might be thinking: “Hey, aren’t we supposed to visit the colleges, and not them visiting us?” Well, of course colleges gladly welcome students visiting their campus and observing what the actual school they’re potentially applying to looks like. However, according to Collegeboard, “representatives from college admission offices visits high schools around the countr[ies] to present informational programs to prospective students”. Meaning, colleges are willing to come to you too! When colleges visit high school campuses, the students, together with the admissions office representative, discuss topics such as academics, campus life, tuition, financial aid, admission procedures, and more. It is basically a chance for future undergraduate students to get a deeper insight into multiple schools. Representatives also visit high school campuses so that students can ask any questions they may have, clarify any confusions, and further persuade why they should apply to the respective college.

Now you may be thinking, I can just google all of the information I’m going to receive. Wrong. Here are some reasons why you should definitely be signing up for these college visits. They’re definitely opportunities you should be taking advantage of (especially for you juniors and seniors).

1. Face-to-face > Email

Of course, you can ask all the questions you want to by simply typing them up and sending emails off to the admissions office, or even searching them up online. However, it’s really important to realize the importance of meeting college representatives face-to-face, and asking them questions then. You’ll likely get more detailed answers, and you would be able to ask more distinct-to-you questions. For example, you could be asking specifically about the chances of getting accepted with your current test scores and GPA, which they can then use to help assess and figure out your possibilities.This also comes with the bonus of giving colleges a heads-up that you’re actually seriously interested, which would most likely help, rather than hurt your chances of getting in.

2. New Discoveries

Sure, you may not be serious about all the colleges visiting KIS. Though let me just say that it’s better to give it a shot than to not. You never know; you may have absolutely no interest in a college until you actually attend the meeting. You’re really not bound to lose anything because they’re visiting you instead of the other way around, and it’s an opportunity for you to discover other possibilities you never would have thought of or stopped to consider. After all, you’re receiving more information than what is merely on the college’s homepage.

3. Better early than late, better late than never

It’s true; some schools don’t encourage students who are not seniors to attend college visits. However, Bill Yarwood, a guidance professional in New Jersey, states “we encourage sophomores and juniors to participate for long-range planning.” High school students usually start thinking about college at the end of their junior year, or even at the start of their senior year. What students tend to not realize is that planning out things beforehand helps so much later on. Juniors, rather than pushing off everything until the very last minute, at least start thinking about potential options by attending the college visits KIS provides you with. And even if you’re already a senior, there is still time left to explore additional possibilities!

4. It’s not just advertising

Colleges also visit high school campuses for advertising purposes. But that’s not always the case. Their visits are beyond simple advertisement. Their visits help prospective applicants in various ways, and colleges also enjoy visiting high schools to see what they should expect for the applicant pool. The construction of such a basis is important for both the colleges and future applicants. So it’s not all about advertising and persuading students to apply. There is more to it and it’s important you play your part in the process.

If you’re a KIS student, you can simply log in to your Naviance page, and straight away, you will see a blue square on the home page with various college visit schedules which you can sign up for. Naviance tells you the college name, date, and time of the meeting so that you can plan accordingly. High school counselors, including our KIS counselors, highly recommend attending meetings in order to broaden spectrums of where you could be applying. September through October is a rush week for colleges, with numerous representatives visiting our school each week.

Interested in a school in New York? New York University’s college meeting at KIS is scheduled for October 20th during High School club block. Or is California your forte? Both UCLA (September 23rd) and California College of the Arts (October 28th) are visiting KIS. Sign up for college visits through Naviance and watch how your perspective towards college change!

– Leona Maruyama (’17)

Featured Image: Auocoms