College Rankings and How They Create False Hope

It’s fall in America. Besides resisting the urge to buy Halloween candy in September, we are again faced with college application season, and the strategically timed release of the latest U.S. News and World Report’s Best College Rankings.

College rankings are published during the fall


It is nice to see that this list is actually dozens of lists now. There are rankings provided for “Most Innovative Schools”, “A-Plus Schools for B Students,” and for almost every unique field of study. Over the years, we have all come to acknowledge that there are multiple intangibles that students look for in a college, and there is no one cookie-cutter student.

It’s a shame, though, that the one list that gets the most media exposure is the best “National Universities” list. This breakdown is greeted with joy by the schools who occupy its highest tier – the schools most often called “highly selective” and deemed the most coveted. You know the ones, especially if you have a relative or friend who went to one of those schools, or have a child studying there.

The methodology of how these schools get ranked is complicated at best. If you are a number cruncher, you may enjoy digging much deeper into the quantitative measures and formula used. The rest of us tend to focus in on the basic metrics like admissions test scores, financial resources and retention rates. An important thing to remember is that indicators of academic excellence are weighted based on “U.S. News’ judgment about how much that measure matters.”* Anyone can debate these judgements, and many have been doing just that, ever since the magazine’s ranking was first published in 1983.

My biggest concern with the National Universities list is how it is cleverly used by the schools who are in its upper quartile and how that in turn affects us, as families with children applying to colleges.

Kids decide where to apply to college based on so many different ideas, beliefs and feelings. Common reasons include where family members went to college, proximity/distance to or from home, chance of scholarship money, reputation-both academic and athletic, majors offered, and what we now call “campus vibe”.

If you’ve been involved in a student’s experience with applying to college any time in the last two decades you know that school choices and chances are broken down into three categories: safety schools, where a student is highly confident they can get in; match schools, where a student’s profile on paper matches up with admission statistics; and reach schools – those that are considered a long shot for a student to gain admittance.

[More on why college admissions is harder than you expected here.]

The issue I have is with so many of the well-known reach schools, the ones that are ranked so high on that national list – the ones that know there are kids out there willing to sacrifice their mental health and their family’s savings just to be admitted.

The reality of higher education in our country is that it has joined the dubious list of “Bigs” – Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Insurance, etc. It is a BIG BUSINESS. Try as we might to envision our children’s potential college as an institution solely focused on increasing and improving their minds and hearts, we must stay mindful of the fact that the bottom line is indeed their bottom line.

The amount of money universities spend on marketing continues to increase, and their strategies expand each year. If you have a high school student who has taken any kind of standardized test, the amount of mail you will start receiving can be staggering. So much for saving trees in the digital age. Schools know the value of stoking our egos and what a shiny poster, thick booklet or sticker from a highly selective college can do – instantly increase the chances that a student will add this name to their “reach” list. They are throwing out a bone, and the dogs are running at high-speed for a chance to bite.

Perhaps these schools are wittingly playing into our inflated senses of accomplishment. Our kids are indeed products of the “Everyone gets a Trophy” mentality. Even if you as a parent have never played the “You are so Special” card, this generation has been groomed to feel exceptional by the privatization of childhood – club sports, specialized teachers, tutors, music instructors, and any number of adults being paid to keep the whole family happy about paying money for something.

These highly selective schools send mailings to tempt kids who have almost zero chance of getting into their institutions, based on three certainties:

1. The first is the concept of a “holistic” admissions process.

This single word gives hope to any kid with one or more deficiencies on their resume. Poor test scores? No AP classes offered at your school? It’s OK, you still shine in other areas, so you have a chance! This one word also silences anyone who questions an admittance decision.

2. Secondly, the intangibles surrounding what college admissions committees are looking for is an ever-revolving door of buzzwords.

Mission trips and internships have been replaced by old-school jobs like fast food service. Leadership positions have given way to overcoming obstacles and authenticity. This continual evolution has left kids wondering, “What do they most want this year? Did I start-up the right club or create a unique enough non-profit?”

3. The third truth of applying to college is our lottery mentality – “If you don’t play, you can’t win!”

Kids today are throwing caution to the wind and a larger than ever number are applying to at least eight schools, due to the ease of online applications and the ubiquity of the Common Application. You can hear the pride in parents’ voices as they loudly proclaim the names of the prestigious colleges their child is applying to, while the schools salivate at their ever diminishing acceptance rates that help keep them high in the rankings.

So here is what I’d like to say to all those colleges keeping so many unrealistic hopes alive: Please just stop your onslaught of mass marketing, or at the very least, just be straight up with students’ chances. Maybe copy and paste a disclaimer such as this to your website and all of your marketing materials:

Dear Prospective Student (and Proud Parent):

Your chances of being admitted here are brutally and ridiculously small – SINGLE DIGITS! – And we absolutely aim to keep our admit rate on the downward trend. Your aspirations and our realities usually don’t mesh. We are looking to create our own little magical blend of a freshmen class, and our decision-making processes are mercurial and subject to every kind of bias a human can imagine.

We don’t need you, and we hope you realize that you don’t need us either. The $75 application fee that you are about to surrender to us could be better spent in numerous other ways –  ones that won’t result in your sadness, anger and confusion. Donate that money to a charity, go out for a nice family dinner or adopt a dog from your local shelter. All of these activities will make your feel better about the world and the unfair process of applying to college. If you still wish to throw the dice and apply, good luck and thanks for your contribution to our marketing department. Bye

*From: “How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best Colleges Rankings” Sept. 12, 2016.



About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two college students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as an Army wife, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on Grown and Flown, Blunt Moms, the Scottsdale Moms Blog, Teen Strong AZ, and on random scraps of paper around her house. Find her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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