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Culture of college rankings becoming toxic

Andy Ziccarelli | Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In 1983, U.S. News & World Report published their first-ever college rankings. It seemed an innocent enough way to gain some new readers, while potentially providing insight to prospective college students as to exactly which schools were very considered “the best.” After all, this was more than a decade before use of the Internet proliferated, which would make this kind of data extremely easy to find for future generations. Little did they know, however, that this simple list would ignite a firestorm in the academic community and create an entirely new line of thinking for high school students, parents, and counselors.

The very concept of listing which college is “the best” is a completely inane concept, and it is an exercise in futility. Different colleges have different missions and each one has unique qualities about them. Even with we just compare major research universities (or just liberal arts colleges, etc.) the range of schools is so broad, and many of the philosophies and cultures are so different, it is useless to compare them. The whole ranking system treats college education as a commodity, almost as though every school provides essentially the same experience, and that these higher ranked ones are “better” than the other ones ranked below them on the list, with complete disregard for any subjective, non-quantifiable considerations. The whole concept is so American, and it feeds off of the culture of competition that exists in this country. Americans always want to be better than their neighbor at everything, and this list finally gives them grounds to compete with each other when it comes to higher education.

Beyond the mere concept of this system, though, I also have an issue with the methodology that is used. Twenty-five percent of the rankings are derived from a survey of deans of other academic institutions and their ratings their competitors’ “perceived academic excellence,” as if they can actually quantify that on a one to five scale. For example, do you think that a dean at the University of Florida or UCLA knows about Notre Dame’s recent commitment to engineering research and the fact that the school just opened a brand new, state-of-the-art engineering building? I would hope that they are more focused on bettering their own school. This past year, Notre Dame dropped to 20th in the rankings, from a tie for 18th, largely due to the fact that our peer assessment scores are lower than every school near us on the list. So does that mean that because some administrators who have never set foot on this campus don’t think that highly of Notre Dame, our education that we are receiving is now “worse” than it was last year?
Now, if this was simply a list in an obscure news magazine that came and went, then that would be one thing. But the USN&WR rankings have become a cultural phenomenon to the point that it now has a tremendous impact on academia. Without knowing too much about Notre Dame before my experiences here the last three years, it seems as though the University places a priority on raising their own ranking, though I would imagine that everyone in the administration will deny it. The term “aspirational peer” is a term that is thrown around far too frequently on this campus, and it bothers me every time I hear it. The term is usually applied to schools that are perceived to be “better” academically than Notre Dame, such as Northwestern, Duke and Stanford, and it seems as though we are craving for them to accept us as peers. Why don’t we just focus on making Notre Dame the best it can possibly be? I’m obviously supportive of the school continuing to improve itself; but that can be a unilateral exercise. Notre Dame’s mission and culture are unique (as are Northwestern’s and Duke’s, etc.), and any standardized comparison to doesn’t do either any justice. Just because it is convenient and easy to compare ourselves to these schools through numerical rankings (all you have to do is look at the list), it doesn’t mean that it is right to do it.

Beyond our campus, though, I see the rankings and competitive mindset permeate through high schools to the point where the first question some of my peers would ask after a prospective school was introduced would be, “Well, where is it ranked?” If it wasn’t high enough for their standards, it was immediately thrown from consideration. I know of parents who didn’t allow their kids to apply to certain schools because they weren’t ranked high enough and they thought that their kids “could do better.” An extreme case was a parent who, allegedly, refused to allow her son to apply to any school that was not ranked in the USN&WR top 25. Period. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but if other high schools are anything like the one I attended, then I have absolutely no problem believing it. The rankings are turning college admissions into a high-stakes, pressure-packed game, in which the goal is to gain bragging rights over instead of finding the school that is the best fit.

I chose to attend Notre Dame because I thought that it would be the most complete fit for me, personally. I did it not because it was the most highly ranked school I was accepted by, but because I considered the location, student body, unique culture, academics and my own personal experiences with the atmosphere on campus, and then decided that it was the right fit. I would urge anyone picking colleges to look beyond an arbitrary list (who made USN&WR the authority on college, anyway?) and find the best college according to you, not a magazine.


Andy Ziccarelli wants everyone to come out and support the Bengal Bouts this Saturday. Bonus points will be awarded to anyone who knows the origin of his nickname. Andy is a junior majoring in civil engineering and can be reached at aziccare@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.