To base one’s college decision — either entirely or largely in part — upon college rankings, as Ashley Griesshammer encouraged in her viewpoint last week, is folly (College rankings matter, 09/16/2010). These rankings might be useful in telling the public about broad differences in general quality among universities, but to rely upon them for more specific distinctions is a mistake. In fact, to call them useful in making broad distinctions is generous. Who needs U.S. News & World Report to tell them that Princeton — #2 on the 2011 list — is, in general terms, a better institution than, say, Hofstra (#139)? On the other hand, what’s the use in knowing that the same magazine considers Georgetown (#21) better than the University of Californina at Berkeley (#22)? No one ever needs to say, “Georgetown is better than Berkeley – if it’s printed here, it must be true!”

Of course, it isn’t fair to only pick on U.S. News and World Report, even if they are the progenitors and perpetuators of this tired trend. The cover of Forbes’ Aug. 30 issue claims to reveal the “250 Best Colleges for Your Money,” which reasonable readers might think would favor public institutions and their lower tuitions. The list starts off typically enough, with Williams at #1, followed by Princeton and Amherst. But the concerned Wolverine will spend a few seconds looking for his beloved school’s name, which fails to appear in the top 50 listed on the first page of the story.

Rather, the University has somehow plummeted all the way to — are you sitting down? — 92nd place, just below Furman University of South Carolina and Drew University of New Jersey. Readers in East Lansing will have to turn to Forbes’ website to discover that their university has dropped out of the top 250 printed in the issue altogether and fallen to 282nd place. I’d like to remind the reader that these rankings come from a magazine purporting to rank “the schools that offer the best return on your educational investment.”

There are so many methodologies, numbers, surveys and half-baked ideas that go into each of these rankings, it’s hardly any wonder that they each produce wildly different results. In my casual analysis of some recent rankings of the University, I found that we rank 29th, 92nd, 7th, 1,283, 874th and 2nd — Okay, I made those last two up. But with such disparate numbers, how could anyone ever make a serious decision about where to apply to or attend college based on the difference of a single spot or two in the rankings, as Griesshammer suggests she did?

Not only do these rankings differ from publication to publication, but they can also vary sharply from year to year. Is the University truly two spots worse than it was last year, and five spots worse than in 2006, as U.S. News suggests? I realize that the football team has suffered since 2006 and the campus’s squirrel population has reached a critical point, but what of our new business school and residence hall? I strongly doubt that any “true” indicator of the University’s rank (if such a thing could even exist) would find that it has declined in quality or has been surpassed by other schools to the tune of five spots in as many years.

But the college ranking’s greatest sin is in implying that universities can actually be compared by inputting a handful of numbers into a formula, and then printing the results in order. This implication is especially dangerous for potential applicants. Statistics like the alumni giving rate, student selectivity or graduation rate at a particular school and their relative weights in a particular ranking should not be of major importance to high school seniors. Rather, the student should ask, what’s campus life like? Do I want to attend a Big Ten school or a small liberal arts college? How will I make my mark there? College counselors have their trite sayings, but they’re not wrong in telling applicants that college is a match to be made, and not a prize to be won. College rankings rankle me because they intrude upon applicants’ process of legitimate discovery about which school is best for them.

Alex King is a Business sophomore.

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