College rankings do(n’t) matter


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Olivia Athan, Contributor

Following accusations from Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia University math professor, the school’s U.S. News & World Report college ranking has dropped from No. 2 to No. 18 after years of hovering within the top spots. 

Thaddeus has accused the university of overstating data related to the number of small classes offered and how many professors hold a doctorate or the highest possible degree in their respective fields. Both of these categories have been major contributors to the university’s No.2 spot and consequently factor into why prospective students choose Columbia over other institutions. Amid the public relations nightmare, this scandal has reignited nationwide debates about the validity and weight of college rankings in general.

The news of Columbia’s dishonesty comes as a shock for many who see the school as one of the top in the nation, continuously producing highly educated and motivated graduates with connections others could only dream of. This notion of important professional connections is one of the reasons college elitism is alive and well. The saying “it’s about who you know, not what you know” echoes through student bodies for a reason: to a degree, it rings true; And these ‘top’ universities pride themselves upon, not only their excellent education but their excellent connections due to their alumni and historical reputations. However, whispers about the legitimacy of college rankings, like those from U.S. News & World Report, have been growing louder and louder, and the news of Columbia’s scandal has been the latest amplifier. 

The main motivation for many prospective students to choose one school over the other lies in the school’s ranking. There is a certain gravity with being able to say one attends or attended a nation’s top university, but why? As stated previously, the level of education and insider connections is a huge draw, but another interesting way to look at rankings relates to name recognition. Think about brand recognition; it’s the same concept. Consumers buy from certain brands due to their name recognition, the authority it creates, and the assurance of quality. Many decide upon schooling in the same manner.

Furthermore, many businesses and potential employers think about who to hire in that same regard. A resume from Harvard, Yale, or Columbia may get more consideration than a resume from a smaller state or public university. The extra consideration is rooted in the trust employers have that these institutions only take the best of the best students and produce the leaders, creators and innovators of tomorrow. These broad ideas are part of the reason that college elitism remains a large and dominant beast within America.

However, nepotism and elitism are pillars of society and professionalism that are crumbling and for good reason. Just because the above-mentioned proverb “who you know, not what you know” is culturally accepted, doesn’t constitute it as a self-evident truth. So, from that perspective, it begs the question of whether college ranking actually matters, especially considering the possible reality that these colleges are inflating relevant factors in order to place higher.

At the end of the day, rankings will always matter; students want to attend the best of the best schools, however, rankings must drop in importance. College rankings offer insight and relevant information to prospective students and their parents, but merely because a school is highly ranked generally does not mean that ranking will translate personally.

The point is this: a school must be right for the individual for it to be great; it must be able to serve the needs of a student and propel them into the future they envision for themselves. So yes, college rankings can help organize these elements, but at the end of the day, they cannot truly determine them. Beyond that, institutions are more than their rankings in the same way students are more than their GPAs. Rankings may always hold weight, but they should not be the sole determining factor.