Dear Commons Community,
New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, comments on the rankings phenomenon that grips high-schoolers and their parents every year as they try to decide to what colleges to apply. He especially takes aim at the U.S. News and World Report that annually ranks Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T. in the top ten.
“It’s not that these aren’t great universities. But c’mon. Can you really say with any precision that Princeton is “better” than Columbia? That the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 6) is better than the California Institute of Technology (No. 10)? That Tufts (No. 28) is better than Brandeis (No. 33)?
Of course not. U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly. Or rather, it would be if it weren’t so pernicious.
Magazines compile lists because people like to read them. With U.S. News having folded its print edition two years ago, its rankings — not just of colleges, but law schools, graduate schools and even high schools — are probably what keep the enterprise alive. People care enough about its rankings to pay $34.95 to seek out the details on the U.S. News Web site…
The rankings exacerbate the status anxiety that afflicts so many high school students. The single-minded goal of too many high school students — pushed by parents, guidance counselors and society itself — is to get into a “good” school. Those who don’t land a prestigious admission feel like failures. Those who do but lack the means often wind up taking on onerous debt — a burden that can last a lifetime. And U.S. News has largely become the measure by which a good school is defined. “U.S. News didn’t invent the social dynamic,” says Carey. “What it did was very accurately empiricize them.”
He concludes with a story of a graduate of Stuyvesant High School here in New York City.
“Not long ago, I saw an article written by a recent graduate of Stuyvesant High. Stuyvesant, widely considered the most prestigious public high school in New York — one driven in no small part by the imperative of its students to get into a prestigious college.
The author, who was not part of the cheating scandal, had succeeded in getting into a “Desirable University,” as she put it, but her parents had been unable to afford the tuition. She wound up, deeply embittered, at a state school. Whenever people would bring up the subject of college, she wrote, she would “mutter something about not wanting to talk about it.” Although she claimed to have made her peace with her education, she ended her article by vowing to save enough so that her children wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate.
How sad. Maybe someday she’ll understand that where you go to college matters far less than what you put into college. Maybe someday the readers of the U.S. News rankings will understand that as well.”