It’s springtime. Birds are chirping, butterflies are fluttering, flowers are budding and high school seniors are thumbing through U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of college rankings, trying to decide to which school they will give their parents’ retirement funds. It’s a beautiful thing. The students analyze every important factor: location, selectivity, campus safety, extracurriculars, whether the school is on Thefacebook.com. Then they rip open the magazine and pick the highest-ranked school they were admitted to.

Karl Stampfl

Since 1976, consulting the rankings has been a rite of passage for high schoolers, fitting into the coming-of-age process somewhere between bar mitzvahs and losing your virginity. The tradition may or may not be a flawed practice — google the rankings for a sample of the debate over their validity — but criticism of the list’s factuality cannot undermine its foothold in American culture.

I am among the cult of list-followers. About a year ago, I had the choice between the in-state University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. In an epic battle, Illinois (rank: 37 among national doctoral universities, cost to me: $8,000 a year) wrestled Michigan (rank: 22, cost to me: $36,000 a year). In the end, the Wolverines trounced the Illini, despite the cost. MVP: U.S. News and World Report. Maybe I would have made the same decision in a world without the magazine’s rankings, but Michigan’s margin of victory certainly wouldn’t have been as gaping. Someone more mathematically inclined might say that each of the 15 spots between the schools cost me an estimated $7,466.67.

So you can imagine why I was shocked last week when my high school friend violated the sanctity of the holy rankings and picked a lower-ranked school at a higher price. In the upset of the century, one of the magazine’s second-tier institutions, George Washington University, trumped Michigan, the second-best public school in the country. I am not at all questioning his choice. In fact, I am as close to supporting it as a loyal Maize and Blue fan could possibly be. What’s interesting to me is how much it surprises people to learn that he picked number 52 over number 22.

“He picked George Washington?” puzzled mutual friends ask me.

I try to explain my friend’s reasoning — Michigan is the superior academic school, but GW has intangibles, like its location in Washington, D.C. and its superior political internship opportunities. They still don’t quite understand. Their reaction is a result of the U.S. News and World Report phenomenon.

Even if you have never seen a copy of the list, you have most likely been influenced by it through word of mouth. The list has shaped the public’s perceptions over the last 30 years. A good or bad ranking in the magazine can make or break a university’s reputation — if Michigan had been 30 or 32, I’m not sure I would have picked it. But that’s not the only way it influences higher education. With each edition, the rankings measure schools less and determine their success and the success of their graduates more.

Let’s say Northwestern University is not really the 11th best school in the country. Let’s assume that it’s only the 60th best school. The magazine, however, ranks it at 11. Top-notch students who might have gone elsewhere see that and send in their enrollment deposits. Accomplished faculty and administrators leave other schools to work there. Newspapers quote its professors more. The university’s name is posted around the world, resulting in easy, free publicity. Employers see that magical number 11 and hire more Northwestern grads. The alums make more money than they would have otherwise and donate some of it to the university, which then reports a higher alumni-giving rate to the magazine, boosting its ranking. As the years go by, Northwestern becomes more and more like a number 11 school than a number 60 school.

Maybe the list’s critics are correct; maybe the magazine editors are playing a fool’s game by trying to quantify the best places to get an education. But each year they become more accurate, and not because they keep dreaming up a better formula, but because the list is steadily shaping reality, instead of reality shaping the list.

 

Stampfl is a Daily fall/winter administration beat reporter. He can be reached at kstampfl@umich.edu.

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