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What Does Best Mean? Understanding College Rankings

Every year around this time, publications — some of them more cottage industries than magazines — compile and release "best of" college rankings. You may have seen Washington Monthly's 2020 College Guide is just out, and USNews will publish its blockbuster rankings in mid-September.
I mention this because we just finished College Application Boot Camp here at Woodberry, and it allowed for so many excellent conversations with seniors about their college searches. Some are nervous about balancing academics and athletics in the college setting. Others are excited to explore colleges far from home but worry that a farflung college adventure will mean leaving behind family and friends.
I also had a few conversations that were less excellent. I might even call them frustrating, both for me and the student. They often began with a comment or question like this: 
  • I'm not sure where I'll end up, but I know I'd like to attend a "Top 10" university.
  • I haven’t heard of that college. How does it rank?
  • Which one of these schools is “better,” Mr. Mabe?
Each of these sentiments stems from the suspicion that there must be some unshakable order of "best" colleges. While I’m sure that family and geographic context play into conventional wisdom about what makes for a “good” school, it’s clear to me that thirty years of college rankings have skewed this conversation for far too many students. While rankings might have a place early in the college search, I’m skeptical that they provide much value at all when it comes time to narrow a college list or make an enrollment decision.
Let's forget for a second that publications value different things when they rank, so finding a definitive quality list is impossible. Let's also skip over how the rankings themselves have warped college priorities by incentivizing enrollment managers to market to thousands of students they intend to deny in order to appear more selective. Colleges gravitate toward standardized test scores and Early Decision contracts in part because rankings organizations reward these behaviors.
Mainly, the process of rank-ordering colleges fails to recognize what we all know: institutions are fundamentally different from each other. Culturally, socially, geographically, pedagogically. Ranking Michigan and Wake Forest in the same list might seem like a good idea — USNews has them at 25 and 27, respectively, in their National University rankings — but these two schools couldn't have less in common.
It feels a bit like ranking marine life. If I presented you a list — based on my valuing top speed, friendliness, nobility, and miles covered — that ranked the bottlenose dolphin as the number one animal living in the ocean, would that really provide much value? How can you rank the dolphin above the king crab, the sea snake, and the humpback whale when each is so different from the last?
It's the same with colleges. Rankings pretend precision where none exists. That Michigan is two positions better than Wake in USNews is meaningless. The experience a Woodberry grad will have at either of those universities relates far more to student body, region, teaching style, class size, and environment than to a contrived "quality" ranking. It's also worth noting that Washington Monthly ranks these two institutions 40 positions apart.
As these rankings magazines publish their lists over the next few weeks, keep a few things in mind:
  1. Review methodologies and focus on what you think has value. If you're like me and you don't see the SAT as a particularly strong indicator of potential college success, don't value a rankings methodology that prizes standardized tests.
  2. Rank-ordering colleges doesn't make sense. Better to think of "college quality" in broader terms, like batches. On a rank-ordered list, you might view the top fifty schools as essentially interchangeable from a quality perspective. Rather than rely on an artificial rank order, let the locations and cultures and academic focuses of those schools organize your search.
  3. Rankings can suggest new options. I sometimes use college rankings with juniors to lend legitimacy to solid schools that are unknown to the student. If you're a competitive applicant looking at Washington & Lee because you value undergraduate teaching and small class size, then you should consider Pomona, Carleton, and Hamilton, too. Those colleges are every bit as powerful, but are often less familiar.
  4. "Best" doesn’t matter as much as "best for you." There are a lot of unhappy students at elite universities. If you find that your search is driven by what the market has decided about your college list, or by a general sense you have about which is a "good” school and which isn't, then you aren’t taking seriously your own needs and interests. The best college searches start with the student, not the school.
It’s human nature to rank things. It’s a way we impose order on a disorderly world. Unfortunately, in the college context, this kind of order is an illusion. As you sift through all manner of rankings publications this fall, feel free to glean what you can, but feel just as free to dismiss these efforts as over-precise. You can't definitively rank order colleges just like you can't rank order the fish in the sea.

Woodberry Forest admits students of any race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, and national or ethnic origin to all of the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school-administered programs. The school is authorized under federal law to enroll nonimmigrant students.