Don’t Fear the Rankings: Viewing Colleges Objectively

Is Big Bridges’ ceiling façade prettier than the melodic measures of, say, the After School Specials underneath it? Is Harvey Mudd College’s spring Shakespeare production better-looking than the cactus landscaping at Pitzer College?

These may be silly questions, but they’re the kind that a lot of 5C students are considering right now, albeit in a slightly different arena: the process of ranking not art, but colleges. After Pomona College was scored No. 1 by Forbes Magazine this summer, many students were quick to demur that trying to define an absolutely best school is folly. Instead, they opine, the 'best' school is actually something that’s personal to each individual student—it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.

What’s surprising about this sort of thinking is that it is not only the campus left that has embraced it. Even students on the right ultimately agree that the rankings process is inherently flawed, and therefore futile. They just argue that we should take advantage of the results anyway to bolster Pomona’s branding efforts, regardless of any past resolutions to do otherwise. Indeed, pretty much everyone concurs that college rankings are merely tools, and the current debate is simply over whether or not we should leverage them as such.

But we ought to back up the discussion a bit. Is it possible that rankings could have a value beyond that particular instrumental purpose? Could a universal hierarchy of academic institutions actually exist? Could we ever legitimately declare that Pomona is not just No. 1 for me, but for everyone?

That’s an avenue we can explore by looking at the fact that most people would concede that rankings are actually indeed “true” up until a point—for instance, insofar as they distinguish Pomona’s stature from that of a community college. But at a certain point, the argument goes, it becomes impossible to meaningfully compare top-tier schools, and that’s where the ranking process breaks down.

Yet that logic doesn’t exactly follow. For example, Christianity and Islam both agree up until a certain point—specifically, that there was a man named Jesus Christ who walked this Earth. However, it’s not as though after that point of similarity the differences in those religions don’t matter, and we ought to judge them as equal!

Analogously, all agree that top colleges are more or less identical to other top colleges, at least up until a certain point. But it’s not as though comparison between the greats becomes impossible past that point; on the contrary, the remaining differences become even more significant. The fact that people disagree about something is not proof that both choices are okay. Rather, it’s an indication that a terribly important distinction exists—so important that people have ended up diametrically opposed—whose origin we need to seriously inspect.

Of course, the reason that that disagreement occurs is in large part because each student has his or her own set of interests and background experiences, all of which guide his or her decision. Pomona or Claremont McKenna College? It does come down to what you personally find attractive about each school, and rankings necessarily fail to capture that.

But rankings are valid because of that fact, not in spite of it. It’s on purpose that rankings throw personal considerations out the door, because their goal, after all, is to define something that’s universal. That works because education is an activity that appeals to our intellect, irrespective of empirical experience. That’s the premise that rankings are built upon—that we all have a common standard of taste, beneath all the subjective preferences by which we usually try to reason. But for those empirical encumbrances, we would all choose the same school—the best one.

The fact that that’s not what actually ends up happening in the real world isn’t evidence that a universally best school doesn’t exist. It just illustrates the practical circumstances that we all live under, which twist our processes of decision-making away from ones based on pure rationality.

Rankings, when done right, act as a signpost to help us ignore those subjective considerations. To be sure, Forbes’, and everyone else’s, are almost certainly imperfect in achieving that goal. But that’s a procedural problem, not a metaphysical one. A hierarchy of schools exists—we just have to find it.

It’s dangerous to forget that, especially given the current zeitgeist of relativism at the 5Cs, which rejects claims of universality about colleges or anything else. We shouldn’t be afraid of rankings, knowing that they are directed at a helping us uncover truths about the world.

If we don’t do that, and continue to view rankings just as tools, we needn’t employ them—after all, Pomona signed an agreement in 2007 promising just that. But insofar as we view them as promising an inkling of truth—and they do—let’s embrace them. It’s always nice to be on top.

Matt Dahl PO '17 is majoring in politics. He is currently studying abroad in China.

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