I recently finished conducting alumni interviews of prospective students for my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. The students blew me away with their accomplishments, and at the end of the interview, they had the opportunity to ask me anything. I was asked specific questions on opportunities like study abroad programs and how feasible it was to double major. In addition, nearly all of them asked me why I had picked Penn.
I had been pondering this same question in the weeks leading up to the interviews. I explained that I had two answers. The first answer was the complete and honest truth about why I selected Penn—its reputation and ranking. The second answer was why I would’ve chosen Penn, had I done my research at the time—the abundance of academic programs, top-notch faculty, and endless resources.
As a high school senior, I was very ignorant, but as an aspiring scholar of higher education, it is impossible for me to ignore the issues with basing my college decision solely on ranking.
For so many students, rankings of colleges and universities like U.S. News & World Report impact their decision to attend an institution. This is especially true for students like me, whose families are not familiar with U.S. universities and are unable to go on college tours. This dependence on rankings is precisely why colleges invest so heavily in improving their ranking scores.
Understandably, graduation rate, student-to-faculty ratio, and class size are important measures for rankings. However, I was surprised to learn that factors I consider key to my success in college are barely taken into account, if at all, when determining a school’s ranking. My undergraduate experience was greatly enriched by my peers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, yet diversity is not a factor for rankings.
Of the U.S. News & World Report ranking factors, the one I found most compelling was “social mobility,” because I believe that is something colleges should help provide for their students, especially those from economically disadvantaged households. This factor considers the performance and graduation rates of students with Pell grants. Aside from the University of California system which caters to a very diverse population, most elite schools do not have high social mobility rankings simply because the majority of their students already come from higher-income families. For instance, only 13% of the student population at Penn has Pell grants, compared to the national average of 31%.
This social mobility factor, which is U.S. News’ only measurement of promoting equity, constitutes 5% of the score that determines a college’s ranking. On the contrary, 20% of a ranking score is comprised by “undergraduate academic reputation” through a “peer assessment survey” whereby presidents, provosts, and deans rate their peer institutions. I find it amusing that a school’s reputation is used to determine its ranking.
Realizing now that the ranking system can be quite arbitrary due to its factors and how it generalizes a very individual and personal decision, I feel incredibly lucky that Penn was a genuinely good fit for me all around. However, I know that the allure of a certain brand mixed with societal and familial pressures can play a disproportionately large role in a student’s decision-making process.
I would never suggest getting rid of rankings altogether. They serve as a great starting point for students who are researching potential schools, and they encourage schools to constantly strive for growth and improvement. Specific ranking lists that provide information on the best colleges for veterans, undergraduate teaching, and affordability can be quite helpful. However, it is important to note the limitations of the ranking system and to encourage students to find the school that is the best fit for their individual needs.
I told each student I interviewed not to choose Penn for the same reason I did. Instead, I told them to consider all of the factors that matter to them—financial aid, academic departments, extracurricular activities, location, etc.—and make a holistic decision.
When decisions are announced April 1st, I wish I could tell all high school seniors what I would have told my former self: your worth is not dependent on the ranking of the school you attend, or on whether or not you decide to pursue higher education. Don’t compare your success against others. Get advice from people whose input you value, but ultimately make the decision that feels right to you.
Pearl Lo is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and a research associate at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers.