BY PRERNA CHAUDHARY ’22
On the list titled “2019 Best National Liberal Arts Colleges” by U.S. News, Mount Holyoke College ranks at No. 30. Niche ranked it at No. 33, and Forbes said it was No. 49. Why does our college ranking vary so widely on different lists? Different rankings are based on different criteria, and between the lists, the same criteria is weighted differently. While some ranking systems measure “reputation, resources and selectivity,” others measure “student satisfaction” and “post graduate success.” There is little agreement or standardization between the lists that far too many young students use to determine their future schools.
I personally know people that have chosen between two colleges solely based on ranking, even though the lower-ranked college may have actually been a better fit for them. I believe that having some sort of
ranking process for colleges can definitely help students choose where to apply, because there is just an overwhelming number of colleges in existence. But these lists that are often based on vague methodology have greater influence than they should on students’ ultimate taking them so seriously, students should look at the way these rankings are determined and see if their priorities match up.
The U.S. News’ Best Liberal Arts Colleges list for 2019, for example, used the incoming first-year students’ SAT and ACT scores to determine 7.75 percent of each ranking. If the students had higher scores on these standardized tests, then the college’s ranking went up. This incentivizes colleges to accept students with higher test scores so that the college will rank higher, encouraging more students to apply, and eventually turn a profit. This process marginalizes students with lower test scores, who are more likely to be of Black, Hispanic, or Latinx descent than to be of white or Asian descent, for example. This discrepancy in SAT scores based on race further exacerbates the inequality in institutions of higher education because it makes it less likely for students from Black, Hispanic and Latinx backgrounds to gain admission to prestigious institutions, while whites and Asians continue to make up large percentages of universities that are ranked highly.
n 2001, Mount Holyoke became a test-optional institution, meaning that students applying would not have to submit their test scores. Although Mount Holyoke did not explicitly say that they were interested in increasing the racial diversity of our student body, the vice president for enrollment at the time did say that it was so that students could “have more interesting lives,” which could diversify the student body in another way. What is important to consider, however, is that the students who do not submit their SAT scores are excluded when calculating a college’s average SAT score, which in turn has resulted in raising some colleges’ average test scores and therefore their ranking. Some may believe that our institution’s sole objective in becoming test optional was to improve student di- versity, but it actually was a way to improve our ranking status, which shows how much institutions value their rankings.
Another factor in determining rankings for U.S. News’ Best Liberal Arts Colleges was “undergraduate academic reputation,” which accounts for 20 percent of a college’s ranking. What that means is not com- pletely clear by the title or on the U.S. News website. Institutional authority gures, like presidents and deans, will rate “peer institutions,” or institutions within the same ranking category. Not only do these figures have biases and ulterior motives to make their closely ranked college look better than others, but how could they have a great sense of whether an entire student body is satis ed with the undergraduate programs when they are not even working at that institution? These lists are supposed to measure outcomes for students, not how a dean or professor thinks a student at another college is doing.
The next time you are looking at these sorts of college rankings, remember that each of these ranking systems value different criteria. If you look at the criteria and it matches your personal views, like valuing test scores, then that could be the right ranking system for you. Still, keep in mind the other factors that actually do not measure students’ capabilities or satisfaction at all. There are students with different priorities, like their overall happiness, mental stability and other aspects that are dif cult to measure and contribute to their suc- cess and wellbeing.
All of this goes back to being actively conscious consumers of media. As Mount Holyoke students, we need to remember that what we personally prioritize is valuable when looking at these rankings. We should not necessarily feel embarrassed — or boastful — about our ranking, because it does not holistically represent our College. When we nd information online, we must be extra careful when deciding whether or not to believe it. Looking at the source, bias and time period can help us see if the information is actually reliable.