In high school, like many other academically motivated students, I was obsessed with the idea of getting into a competitive, highly-ranked college. By the time senior year rolled around, after three years of filling my schedule with honors and advanced placement classes and being actively involved in different clubs and teams, I thought my sparkly, hollow dreams of attending a “prestigious” — whatever that meant to me — college were in sight. Alas, when college decisions came by way of cryptic “Your Admissions Status Has Been Updated” emails, I realized that a lot of these prestigious schools did not want me back, and the ones that did were way beyond my price point.
After my initial disappointment had worn off into quiet resentment, I decided to go to the University of Alabama because of the scholarship they had given me. My achievement-oriented, somewhat shallow self was not looking forward to attending America’s number one party school after all the work I had put into my grades and extracurriculars in high school. Now, two years and two schools later, I wish I could tell myself that that party school would teach me more about generalizations, independence and conformity than I could ever learn in a classroom.
Academically speaking, my three semesters at Alabama were amazing; I was challenged, and I loved almost all of my professors. Socially speaking, my three semesters at Alabama were meaningful in a different way. I met people who changed me for the better, and I learned how to think for myself. While I ultimately ended up transferring to the University of Michigan, my time at Alabama was by no means the disappointment I had expected it to be, given its “unremarkable” academic ranking. Retrospectively, I see that my disappointment came from the importance I had placed on appearances and school rankings rather than which school was the best fit for me. Now, I question what use rankings really serve. The academic rigor that our University and other selective schools frequently tout is not anything different from what I experienced at Alabama. Considering the similarity between the quality of my academic experiences at Alabama (which sits at #143 nationally) and the University of Michigan (which comes in at #24) these surface-level rankings just seem to provide a means for schools to separate themselves from less socially acclaimed schools.
Beyond my anecdotal evidence for the emptiness of college rankings, these rankings have larger implications that affect students on a national scale. As school rankings rely heavily on standardized test scores, they perpetuate the inequities that come along with these tests. Pulling in approximately $1 billion in revenue each year, these exams are ultimately a business. Students in low-income areas do not have the same access to this business — the prep courses, tutors and funds required to take these tests multiple times — as students in more affluent areas do. However, with the way college rankings are measured, schools continue to rely on these futile and prejudiced scores in an effort to improve their stats. An easy way for universities to climb up the rankings is to increase the average SAT or ACT scores of their incoming class. To do this, many universities, particularly in the South, have created extensive merit-based scholarship programs to attract students with high test scores to their schools. While there is nothing wrong with financially supporting students with high grade point averages and test scores, these programs prioritize students who have the resources to help them reach those standards. Given this prioritization, placing importance on standardized test scores — and the collateral biases of those scores — comes along with placing importance on school rankings.
This is not to say rankings do not matter — this is to say they should not matter. However, the reasons these rankings are significant have little to do with academics or opportunities for involvement and everything to do with perception. As a student at Alabama, the first responses I typically received when I said I went there had to do with football or something involving cousins or intrafamilial relations. As a student at the University of Michigan, the first responses I receive pertain to my academic achievements or questions about what kinds of things I am doing in school. I find it — for lack of a better word — stupid that the school I’ve chosen to go to has manufactured an image of intelligence and capability that was not there in the same capacity when I chose to go to Alabama.
With absolutely no change in my faculties, achievements or limitations when I decided to transfer, I am quick to refute people who say I’ve made some sort of “upgrade” by transferring. On paper, perhaps I have. In reality, the most prominent upgrade that transferring has given me is one of superficial perception. The majority of my classes at both schools have been equally as engaging, challenging and thought-provoking. My social experiences at both schools have taught me about my own priorities, weaknesses and interests and how to interact with those of the people around me. My argument against school rankings is not an argument against the University of Michigan or other selective schools, but one against discrediting or disregarding someone because of the level of exclusivity of the school they go to. To do so is to support the elitism that comes with school rankings and all of the factors that go into those rankings.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.