Rankings Contribute to College Commodification

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U.S. News & World Report released its annual rankings of 1,374 colleges and universities in the United States on Sept. 13, amplifying the nightmare that is the college-application process.

As if the pressure of getting accepted to college in general is not enough, the importance of an institution’s prestige and reputation — factors that carry increasing importance to matriculants in an already bleak job market — adds twofold anxiety. The ranking system does little but exacerbate stress and perpetuates classist and limited views about higher education in the United States.

For the second year in a row, Princeton University claimed the list’s top spot. Rounding out the top five were Harvard University, University of Chicago, Yale University and Columbia University tied with Stanford University. In other news, more of the same.

No one would argue that these institutions are not exceptional hubs of scholarship and academia. Each of these universities contributes meaningful research in a variety of influential fields and produces students who will move on to do exceptional things for the world. But these prestigious and extremely expensive universities are not the be-all, end-all of higher education, and U.S. News’ rankings only contribute to that myth.

The organization says it uses the following formula to rank national universities:

“The U.S. News ranking system rests on two pillars. The formula uses quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it’s based on U.S. News’ researched view of what matters in education.”

But what, according to U.S. News & World Report, really matters in education? Although the organization disclaims, “the host of intangibles that makes up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points,” it still attempts to measure those very intangibles that are far too nuanced for a simple list. In attempting to quantify more ambiguous values, rankings tend to erase the value of matching personalities to institutions.

What began as an attempt to provide transparency about colleges to students and their families sorting through hundreds of options has since transformed into a dangerous system that propagates the phenomenon that the most desirable schools are also the most selective.

College rankings are so controversial that many leading voices in higher education have united to disavow lists altogether.

Rankings are “highly pernicious,” Wesleyan University President Michael Roth told The Atlantic earlier this year (“The Commodification of Higher Education,” March 30, 2016). “I think they’ve had a really deleterious effect on higher education as [colleges and universities] try to meet requirements that may not be in the best educational interest of their students. They accentuate the race toward the wealthiest schools.”

Of course, the increasing commodification of college — which involves institutions acting more like corporations and students being treated like customers — is not a direct result of these rankings, but they certainly have not alleviated the problem.

“Few would argue that the rankings have helped shape a world in which students are seen as consumers, and colleges and universities as commodities,” Alia Wong wrote in the same Atlantic piece. “The rankings are a key reason the higher-education landscape today operates like a marketplace in which institutions compete to convince the best students to buy their product.”

If the goal of U.S. News is still to help students navigate the college-selection process, perhaps the organization should abandon its list altogether. Instead, offer students a school’s full portrait with information about student organizations, internship opportunities, professors’ accessibility and other factors that shape students’ day-to-day experiences.

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