Last week, as students nationwide settled back into dorm life for a new school year, U.S. News & World Report released its annual college rankings. One of many such lists, U.S. News is nevertheless a frequently referenced ranking. Just hours after the 2017 edition was released, proud college students took to social media to brag about their respective university’s position. Not surprisingly, such posts are mostly limited to the crème de la crème, whose students are not reluctant to cash in on a display of pride. Our own Johns Hopkins is worth mentioning: last year, the university cracked the top 10 (maintaining the spot this year). When the going gets tough and work overload threatens a nervous breakdown, Blue Jays are only to remember the prestige of their institution.
Prestige, and the pervasive culture of college rankings in general, is a peculiar trend and one that appears unique to the United States. The sheer number and variety of American universities opens up a competitive arena in which schools battle for top applicants and funding. It is hardly surprising then that prestige plays a part in such a culture, where only a handful of university names are recognized by employers and peers alike. Europe, excluding the United Kingdom, has far fewer institutions, and Europeans generally view college as merely the next step toward obtaining a job. Americans, by contrast, tend to glorify the undergraduate years. Indeed, college has an ethereal quality that distinguishes itself from the European mindset. Prestige and perception are key aspects of that paradigm. A close friend of mine who attends the University of Warsaw recently described to me the general dynamic in Polish universities: lectures and classes seldom take place in a single area and cross-city commutes are common; off campus housing or living at home is the norm which means a unified college community is logistically unlikely; and finally, individual performance and practical progression take precedent over school pride. University prestige is a rather unfamiliar concept.
Importantly, high achievers in the U.S. may bear the brunt of such a culture. In comparing themselves to like-minded students, they are prone to vastly simplify the meaning of success in the realm of higher education. The particular qualities of each school get tossed into a magic grinder, with the output being digit ‘x’. In the eyes of incoming, or event-current students, the number is frighteningly rigid. It purports to hide nothing, but of course hides a whole lot. College rankings are not all that bad.
They provide fairly concrete tiers that high school students may use as benchmarks for their admissions goals. They offer a comprehensive, albeit subjective view of peer schools and can facilitate designations of “safety,” “target,” and “reach”. However, the upsides do little to detract from the corrosive idea that students’ choice of college should be guided by media generated rankings. Students who miss their desired mark in the admissions process may end up at a school they had a negative preconceived notion of. Insufficient research of the “safeties” and a glaring rank number can hence dampen the freshman experience for those who wrongly correlate prestige or lack thereof to the overall college experience. On the other hand, those fortunate enough to find themselves in their dream schools, a vision propped up by top notch ranks, may be disappointed. Elite institutions guarantee stellar academics, but factors beyond that are often a matter of fit. Non-numerical characteristics like campus location can make or break a college experience, and no degree of prestige can rectify that. For college students who have “been around the block,” rankings likely lose significance. The exhilaration of prestige at the undergraduate level carries over to future endeavors such as law school, where the “T14”— the group of schools that perennially retain their top fourteen ranking— have reached almost mythological proportions of perceived glory.
Hopkins upperclassmen may merely nod at this year’s rankings and quietly take pride in what our school has achieved. What that achievement actually entails is another question. Universities like Hopkins admit students who supply them with exceptional statistics (SAT scores, GPA averages) necessary to climb the rankings. It is time for students to exit the tense culture of college rankings and recognize that school prestige is built on their individual success, and not the other way around.
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