College rankings and the dark matter of reputational precision

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a disturbing piece entitled Gaming the College Rankings, exposing how Claremont McKenna, an elite college in California, had misrepresented data in order to climb up in the US News & World Report college rankings. By gaming the system, it rose to become the ninth-highest rated liberal arts college in the United States.

The most disturbing part of the article? Apparently Claremont McKenna College is not alone. Over the past few years, many leading institutions have admitted, been caught, or are suspected of gaming the rankings, including Baylor, Villanova, the University of Illinois, Iona, and even the United States Naval Academy.

Pretty depressing stuff.

So what motivates great academic institutions to risk their reputations to rise in a ranking from a magazine that only remains barely relevant? This quote from the article hits the nail on the head:

“The reliance on [the rankings] is out of hand,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president who oversees admissions at DePaul University in Chicago. “It’s a nebulous thing, comparing the value of a college education at one institution to another, so parents and students and counselors focus on things that give them the illusion of precision.”

The illusion of precision.

These top universities and colleges are risking their hard-earned reputations for an illusion.

Picking the right place to go to college is an excruciatingly difficult decision. I remember looking at these rankings when I was choosing a college too. Why? Those of us who did it were looking for any information we could find to help us ensure we were making a smart choice. These rankings gave us a quantifiable data point that we could use to validate our decision.

The problem is that the data we should be analyzing when making this decision is much harder to see and quantify. The dark matter of institutional brands resists easy measurement and the results of analysis are vastly different for each individual.

For example, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is #29 in the most recent US News & World Report rankings. But I grew up in Winston-Salem, where #25 Wake Forest University is located. Should I have applied there instead? Would I be more successful today if I had received a degree from Wake Forest?

Or what if I had made the decision to go to the University of Georgia (#62), where I was also accepted? Would I be living in a van down by the river because I gave up the opportunity to learn at a school ranked 37 spots higher?

The illusion of precision provided by the rankings may give someone peace of mind as they make their big decision. But at what cost?

The right college is different for every person. Some of us are better suited for big schools. Or small schools. Or nerdy schools. Or party schools. Or cheap schools. Or football schools. And how much does the college itself even matter? If your goal is to be a rich Wall Street banker, Harvard (#1) may have a program that will get you there. But if you want to be a marine biologist, Harvard may not be able to hold a candle to UNC-Wilmington (#11, regional universities in the South), and you’ll probably pay off your student loans faster.

Are the rankings actually harmful? I never thought they were—most people are smart enough to recognize that a degree from a high-ranking college is no guarantee of life success (and a degree from a low-ranking one is no indicator of future failure). The rankings were just one mostly-meaningless data point that gave your parents bragging rights when talking about your education with their friends.

But reading this article made me change my mind. If a great institution risks its reputation for the sake of rising a few spots in a mostly-meaningless ranking, what does this say about its culture? And is US News & World Report (along with others who do similar rankings) at all culpable for forcing colleges to worship a false god in the hope of building fast, cheap, and superficial brand value?

I’m certainly going to look at these rankings in a different light from now on… how about you?

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