Why College Rankings Are Harmful

Every year, it seems there are more college rankings published. From the somewhat trivial “Top Party Schools” to the supposedly important “National University” rankings, these lists have become continuous hype machines created by for-profit publications.

As a student of a top-ranked university, my gut tells me that I should like the ranking system, but I have come to believe that the system is not helpful for higher education nor the students that guide their future with the “help” of these rankings. Rankings hurt many undergraduate institutions by creating what has been aptly called the “Rat Race for Prestige.” Rankings obfuscate important distinctions between institutions by creating simplistic lists that don’t give students a good picture of what university is the right fit. 

One of the main problems with the rankings is the irresistible force that they create for institutions to manipulate their educational philosophy. In an effort to artificially boost their ranking, institutions cater to the rankings in such a way that they drive towards homogeneity that is determined outside of the institution. While it may appear that pushing for excellence in the rankings has benefits, they are outweighed by negative consequences.

The cost of the race for better ranking ultimately falls on students. In a push for better services, schools must gain funding from increased financial costs incurred on students. For example, many schools, which cannot afford to pay enough professors for small classes that rankings reward, must dilute their academic quality by hiring under-qualified, cheaper faculty to lower the student-to-teacher ratio. Schools also feel pressure to inflate grades and coddle students in an effort to boost retention rates that rankings look for. Schools are pressured to accept students with higher test scores and deny more students admission even if they would be a good fit for the school's culture. Each ranking category may be noble in theory, but the manipulation of an institution’s educational philosophy can have negative consequences that outweigh the benefits. 

Beyond the negative pressure on the schools, prospective students are not best served by college rankings. As I argued in a previous PolcyMic article, rankings should put more consideration into the present and future financial situation of students. Rankings may be a starting point, but students have to consider more factors like potential debt, location, distance from home, and other factors that are not or cannot be adequately addressed by college rankings. A decision in a college should be one that is based on the custom “fit” for the individual student and not on a publication’s faulty metric. 

College rankings simply cannot determine which university is best for a given student. When students try to interpret rankings, they must realize that there is very little difference between the top universities, and those that don’t fit into the “elite” category must cater to the system at the expense of their students. Rankings oversimplify a very individualized choice that can only be made by the student themselves.

As much as I despise rankings, they are not likely to go away. The for-profit institutions that publish these lists realize the money to be made from the hype surrounding these artificially simplistic lists. I hope students realize that they should seek the best college for their own unique situation, no matter what the ranking. As for the colleges, I hope they would stay true to their own educational philosophy and maintain the diversity in American higher education that makes it so great. 

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