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.
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.

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