The Case Against Being (Ranked) the Best

When U.S. News & World Report released its annual college rankings two weeks ago, Pomona College tied for 5th out of all liberal arts colleges, a rank perfectly consistent with our impression of ourselves as an elite school. Because we tend to fare so well in the U.S. News rankings, it can be tempting to trumpet them as evidence of our greatness.

However, just because they work to our advantage doesn’t mean that they’re valid. And by continuing to advertise our rankings, we're implicitly endorsing a methodology that the educational community has long recognized as severely flawed in several ways.

Firstly, to compare such widely differing institutions as Pomona and West Point on the same scale, rankings are forced to use a set of arbitrary criteria for what makes a school “great” that does not accurately reflect the school's priorities. An example of this is that faculty salaries are a component of the rankings but tuition costs are not, proving disadvantageous for schools that seek to provide an inexpensive education.

Secondly, they rely heavily upon peer assessments from officials at other schools who often know very little about the schools they are asked to rank. Those officials tend to use the reputations already established by U.S. News, thus making the rankings a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, many schools try to game the system by spending more money on food, dorms, grounds and other areas that make them more attractive to incoming students—thus lowering admission rates, which are a component of the rankings—but do little to improve the quality of education offered.

Pomona and 18 other liberal arts colleges signed a letter in 2007 pledging not to reference the U.S. News or similar rankings in any publications from that point forward because “such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number.”

While it was a nice PR stunt, it became problematic when Pomona continued to receive high rankings, such as when Forbes gave the college the No. 2 spot on its 2013 “America’s Top Colleges” list. Instead of abiding by our pledge, we opportunistically abandoned it so that we could milk the event for all the easy publicity it had to offer.

Today, our admissions website proudly displays both our U.S. News ranking and our Forbes ranking, and in July the college released an online news article touting our 2014 Forbes ranking. The 2007 anti-ranking letter, meanwhile, has been relegated to the remote “Summary Statistics” subcategory of the Institutional Research portion of the website.

I understand the appeal of using such rankings, especially given our lack of name-brand recognition among the general public compared to many larger elite schools. It’s okay to use them to give people a general sense of our place within the world of education (for example, the fact that we’re not a community college), but when we start to use them to compare ourselves to our peer institutions in the eyes of prospective students, we’re taking unfair advantage of our privilege as a school that does well under their criteria and legitimizing a system that harms schools that do not.

One such school is Reed College, which stopped reporting data to the U.S. News in 1995 because of ideological objections to its methodology. The following year, Reed experienced the largest drop in the history of the rankings, and the college alleges in a statement on its website that the magazine continues to artificially lower its ranking today.

It might be too much to ask for us to take Reed’s noble lead and stop submitting data to U.S. News ourselves. After all, the rankings are enormously influential, and at some point we need to weigh the potential harm that could be caused by jeopardizing our ranking against the ideological purity that could be obtained from it. But the least we can do is to stop trumpeting our ranking as a convenient way of affirming our status as a top-tier institution.

I’m not saying that it is never okay to use statistics for PR. The fact that we have the largest endowment per student of any liberal arts college in the nation, for instance, is a legitimate selling point. Ultimately, though, our identity is defined by more than our statistics. It is defined by our personality, our attitude and our sense of community—all things that U.S. News can never measure, let alone compare to other schools.

We should be more than just our ranking. We should be ourselves.

Samuel Breslow PO '18 is from Londonderry, N.H., and plans to major in the social sciences.