College Rankings Devalue Breadth of Knowledge, Ignore Human Element

Editorial Board

The days are getting shorter and crisper, and right on schedule, a host of disillusioned columnists are beginning to attack this year’s quantification of the unquantifiable. On Tuesday, US News & World Report released the 2015 edition of its widely acclaimed annual rankings of the nation’s best colleges; after a three-place uptick from last year, Oberlin College now rests at number 23 of all “National Liberal Arts Colleges.” Like its competitors, the list takes a number of factors into account, many of them quantitative rather than qualitative, and year after year, these reports generate inevitable controversy. The Review published an editorial last September, “Education More Than Return on Investment” (Sept. 27, 2013), that questioned the merit of financialand earnings-based measures when ranking liberal arts colleges. The disagreements surrounding methodology, however, keep students’ and parents’ attention fixated on these rankings, even though the most carefully-designed numeric measures of each institution’s worth may be missing a broader point.

What gets left out when deciding which colleges are “best” and which are “worst” is, in a word, us — the student body. In a Sept. 6 op-ed in The New York Times titled “Demanding More from College,” columnist Frank Bruni called out the narrowness of the public conversation about college worth, criticizing the relentless focus on rapid career achievement post-graduation. The limited scope of discourse, he said, drives students to attend highly-ranked colleges and universities only to surround themselves with the familiar, whether by deepening their knowledge only in the subjects that piqued their interest in high school, or by forging networks of friends and contacts that closely mirror those they already had. The Review’s Editorial Board could not agree more.

Here at Oberlin, students are fortunate to have a rich variety of resources available to them. However, beyond professors, libraries, performance spaces and the like, we, the students, are one of Oberlin’s most valuable resources. We’re also the resource that is perhaps most frequently overlooked. Oberlin is made up of students from a broad variety of backgrounds, but, to quote Bruni, we’re “attending college in the context not only of a country with profound financial anxieties, but of a country with homogeneous neighborhoods, a scary preoccupation with status and microclimates of privilege.”

Amid the various reports, one periodical whose college ranking list rivals that of US News for attention, at least among students, is The Onion, the fake news outlet whose satirical list placed Oberlin third.

Amid harsh satirical jabs at Oberlin, including a cissexist remark, one ranking category stands out — “Free Speech Acceptance: Oberlin has a rich legacy of allowing students to vocalize opinions everyone around them already agrees with.”

The truth in The Onion’s criticism is not that everyone on Oberlin’s campus shares the same views — they certainly do not — but that students here, like students at so many schools, self-sort into familiar subgroups, failing to expose themselves to the divergent viewpoints and philosophies that surround them. Bruni’s advice: “Mix it up.” That might mean deleting “one of every four [web browser] bookmarks” and instead following “publications, blogs and people whose views diverge from your own,” or — perhaps most importantly — breaking out of the social and academic circles that impede us from exploring the breadth of knowledge that Oberlin has to offer.

At the Review, we’re uniquely situated to do just that. Reporting on a story provides students an opportunity to step outside comfort zones and explore areas of campus and town life they might otherwise never experience. Often, we joke that working on the Review is like taking an extra course, due not only to the long hours, but also because of its inherently topical and fluid syllabus. More than a few staff members say they have learned more from participating in campus journalism than they have in any designated course.

In spite of our desire for breadth as well as depth, the editorial choices the Review makes are limited by the narrowness of our own perspectives. Despite our efforts to push the boundaries of our reporting, our representation of community events is inevitably imperfect. This year, the Review strives to do better. We’re challenging ourselves to identify and address bias throughout our organization’s structure and to create an institution on campus that reflects more viewpoints and outlooks. At 140 years old, the Review is still learning to make the most of the space it occupies at Oberlin, and it’s got a long way to go — but that’s what college is all about.