Each year, hundreds of college counselors and high school students anxiously hold their breath. They swamp popular college discussion forums like College Confidential, where they begin counting the days, hours, and minutes until its release. Are they awaiting the release of admissions letters? Financial aid information? J.K. Rowling’s latest book?
In fact, what they await is far less life-changing—and hopefully less entertaining than any of Rowling’s novels. These college-obsessed forum-goers await U.S. News and World Report’s annual “America’s Best Colleges” rankings, a list considered the authoritative source on how much “prestige” is allotted to a given school.
According to U.S. News’ 2010 rankings, Stanford has placed 4th once again—tying with MIT, Cal Tech, and Penn.
When it came to selectivity, on the other hand, Stanford tied with Yale as having the 2nd lowest admit rate for the Class of 2013. Both admitted just 7.5% of those who applied; only Harvard had a slightly lower admit rate, at 7%. Meanwhile Princeton’s rose substantially, up to 9.8%.
However, this past year’s admit rates won’t influence the rankings until next year – and regardless, a variety of measurements go into U.S. News’ infamous college list. Aside from student selectivity, significant measurements include retention and graduation rates of students, faculty resources, financial resources, and alumni satisfaction. Together, these factors account for 75% of a college’s ranking. The remaining 25% originates from a peer assessment survey in which college presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions rate the quality of schools in a similar ranking category.
U.S. News has been publishing its annual rankings since 1983, and the magazine’s methodology is generally regarded as objective, mainly due to its emphasis on quantitative data. Nevertheless, most high school and college students alike realize the folly of setting too much store by such rankings, as the quality of one’s education – and one’s college experience overall – cannot easily be judged or predicted by numbers.
When looking at colleges, most high school students and their parents consider factors such as a school’s size, location, financial aid packages, and the quality of specific departments or programs, as well as reputation. Many also now consider the social environment, or overall “vibe” of a campus, as crucial to one’s college choice. For others, the physical attractiveness of the student body, success of sports teams, or lovability of the school mascot (let’s go hug the Tree!) might even make the list. Attempting to gauge such qualitative measures requires a lot more than a trip to the U.S. News website—and often requires a road trip across the US.
Why, then, do college rankings like those of the U.S. News and World Report even matter? First, there’s the college application pool. The fact is, when a college moves higher in the rankings, or is highly ranked year after year, it gains more recognition from high school counselors and top students. This equates to more applicants, which means that the college can be more selective and choose brighter, more qualified students. In the long-term, brighter students plus a rigorous curriculum creates more successful, prominent alumni; in the short-term, higher student qualifications and a lower admit rate helps ensure that the college will stay highly-ranked for years to come.
Furthermore, esteemed college rankings such as U.S. News’ may be particularly influential when it comes to attracting international applicants. On the college discussion website CollegeConfidential, one senior member from Bombay, India writes, “Alot of people in other countries not as familiar with the process seem to take U.S. News as some sort of ‘official national ranking’ system.” While the rankings are primarily based on hard numerical data, it’s still important to remember that the system was created by a magazine.
In terms of the job market, having a prestigious alma mater can also certainly help one’s resume. However, what are often far more important are an applicant’s connections, past internships, and impressive former summer jobs—all of which are right at Stanford students’ fingertips, given the University’s proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, Stanford students have grown accustomed to their school’s distinguished—and, as a sense of snobbery is not generally appreciated around The Farm, they tend to dismiss such national rankings. Jillesa Gebhardt ’10 explained that the order of U.S. News’ top schools is “pretty insignificant. I mean, when you’re applying for a job, as long as you’re going to a ‘well-recognized’ school, your employer probably isn’t going to care whether you’re going to #3 or #5.”
Jason Jia ’10 expressed similar skepticism toward the reverence that some pay towards the U.S. News’ rankings. “All that matters to me,” comments Jia, “is that we’re in the Top 5. [The schools that should be there] are pretty clear cut; within those 5, the rankings just seem pretty arbitrary.”
Regardless, Stanford’s thriving, fun-loving culture causes many students—and even alums—to forget about their school’s prestige as they relish the memories of fountain-hopping, attending Fleet Street concerts, and torturing ursine effigies during Big Game Week.
Remarked one alum from the class of ’83, “As long as they still have the Band, Stanford will always be #1!”