Year after year, college rankings maintain their hard-fought relevance. The leader of the pack, as every admissions officer knows, is U.S. News & World Report, whose annual rankings are due out next week.
Colleges have long maneuvered to improve their standings on the hallowed list, changing various policies (and sometimes cheating) to jibe with the magazine’s methodology. U.S. News’s stranglehold on colleges needs to end, writes Vox’s Libby Nelson in a post published Friday morning. While college rankings are usually chided for being arbitrary or useless, she writes, the real crime is how colleges are enslaved by them, in ways that hurt students.
By indicting the U.S. News list, Ms. Nelson is indicting the whole of college rankings. But what critics like her might forget is the indisputable fact that, while college rankings are, like any metric, of limited use, they can serve students—anyone, for that matter—in very concrete ways. Here are a few situations where a college ranking might come in handy, with some thoughts on which version would serve you best:
If you were stranded on a desert island, a college ranking might save your life. For instance, as kindling in a fire. To accomplish this, you’re going to want one of the thicker volumes, with pages that catch fire easily. I’d recommend The Princeton Review’s 880-page book.
If your island has plenty of kindling, use a ranking of America’s colleges to preserve your sanity. The Princeton Review edition might best remind you of life back home, as it has a ranking for every human sensation. (The list of “stone-cold-sober schools” will take on a new and depressing meaning as you struggle to fall asleep with a rock as your pillow.) If you want something to help you fall asleep, go for the Washington Monthly’s college guide and its wide-ranging series of analytical essays.
Armageddon, but You’ve Been Spared
The unthinkable has come to pass. The world as we know it has ended, and you’re the leader of a small band of survivors charged with rebooting civilization. The only piece of literature in your possession is a college ranking. You’ll want the one with the most statistics. I recommend the (forthcoming) U.S. News guide. The veracity of the numbers and statistics will be of no consequence to you. Hopefully, the percentage signs and descriptions of the methodology will jog your memory of trigonometry as you try to reinvent the internal-combustion engine.
On the dusty road of postapocalyptic America, you might encounter hostile wildlife or, even worse, violent human beings. An exhaustive ranking of America’s colleges would not be useless in a fight. A ranking made of high-quality paper might deal a bloodthirsty cannibal the fatal blow. Go for a ranking with the sharpest pages. I’d recommend the Forbes rankings. It doesn’t skimp on paper quality.
And if you or, more likely, your followers succeed in restoring civilization to its former glory, one of the rankings could help serve as a model for higher learning in your new utopia. Or you could just wing it. Either way would probably be fine.
You’ve been beamed up to a hostile alien mothership. All you have to represent the human race to a group of would-be conquerors is a college ranking. Don’t panic! Use any of the aforementioned rankings to show them we have the capacity for language. This will probably seem elementary to them, so pull up the forthcoming rankings from The New York Times’s Upshot on your phone to show them we’ve mastered digital communication in the form of the Internet (go ahead and pretend we invented the Internet a few millennia ago).
At this point, members of the alien species will be licking their lips at the thought of occupying our planet and enslaving the lot of us. This is your last shot. Use any of the aforementioned rankings to show how we humans have presided over a bloated, inefficient system of educating the best and brightest among us by loading them up with a fortune’s worth of debt for a degree of limited use. If the aliens have the capacity for pity, they’ll move on.
Apply to College
In the direst of scenarios, you could use one of the many college rankings to apply to college, keeping in mind that colleges play all sorts of tricks to climb the rankings, tricks that have no positive effect whatsoever on the quality of education you will receive. Godspeed.