Editorial: Students must look beyond the number

Posted by the Editorial Board

Our college is 41. According to "U.S. News and World Report," this number encompasses everything that prospective students need to know about the campus we call home. From that, applicants should be able to understand our professors' engagement, our classes' difficulty and the overall value of a diploma with "Skidmore College" stamped across the top.

The magazine heads its list of college rankings with a disingenuous disclaimer: "These rankings provide one tool for selecting a college." But for many families, the "U.S. News and World Report" list stands as an authoritative guide for where to spend tuition dollars. Whether it acts as a one-stop mailing list for where to ship off a Common Application, or just a quiet source of doubt for high school seniors already second-guessing their own ideas of where they might be happy, the list's influence on students' college search is poisonous and pervasive.

Criticisms of the rankings' methodology and undue influence have been around almost since the magazine initially published its first Best Colleges issue in 1983. Outlets from the "San Francisco Chronicle" to "The New Yorker" have published condemnations of the list, claiming it maintains a status quo of high-endowment colleges dominating the top spots, leaving unrecognized the forward momentum of other schools repeatedly relegated to the middle of the pack.

No one means to denigrate the comprehensive research conducted by "U.S. News and World Report" every year. The data collected is significant: reputation among educators, class sizes and acceptance rates should, without question, play an influential role in students' assessment of potential colleges. But by combining these varied factors under one monolithic heading, "The Best," the magazine suggests that picking a college should be literally as simple as 1-2-3.

"U.S. News and World Report" might do better by its readership by promoting separate lists for each of the factors that now play a fractional role in a college's overall ranking: "Schools with the Smallest Class Sizes," "Schools Highest-Rated Among College Presidents," "Schools with the Greatest Financial Resources." By allowing students to mix and match among several lists, rather than allowing one list to overshadow specific criteria, the magazine would encourage more applicants to think critically about the college qualities most important to them.

As much flak as "The Princeton Review" deserves for its unabashedly unscientific methods for categorizing schools, it gets some of the college application process right. The website gained attention for rankings reflecting specific criteria important to students: from "Great College Towns" to "Most Politically Active Students," the review guide makes sure that prospective students know exactly what qualities are being ranked when they see numbers lined up on a page. These lists' popularity shows that students don't just want to be told what school is "the best" – they want to find out what school is right for them.

We appreciate that our college understands prospective students' difficulties in finding the college best-suited for their needs and that they remain sensitive to how the "U.S. News and World Report" list is ill-suited to helping students through that process. In 2007, President Glotzbach condemned the magazine's rankings for misleading students, going on to pledge that Skidmore would refuse to participate in the "U.S. News and World Report" reputational surveys that play a significant role in the formation of the "Best Colleges." The college is also notable in the absence of those rankings appearing in the college's promotional material, in a deliberate choice that we applaud.

Glotzbach understands, just as any student who has endured the college process does, that deciding where to attend college is a difficult process, one made no easier by the misleading numbers game of "U.S. News and World Report." As we pass prospective students visiting the campus this spring, we empathize with the challenges they face. Regardless of whether potential applicants like what they see at our college, we hope they see Skidmore's particular strengths and opportunities – ones that can't be enumerated.

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