If you ask an admissions office about college rankings, you’ll get a version of the brush-off response: “We don’t think an education at our school can be summarized by a ranking system” or “We don’t pay attention to rankings.” Yet year after year, Cornell compiles and submits its statistics for the rankings whose importance it will ultimately deny.
This is because, in spite of the fact that the rankings may not be indicative of the quality of education at a given institution, they matter to high school students. They matter to college students. And they matter to Cornell students most of all.
There is no denying the annual gearing up of defense mechanisms that the release of the rankings brings on, our first line of attack against Cornell’s “Ivy envy.” Primary among these is the aforementioned response that rankings don’t matter, which last year was incongruously coupled with the statement that at least we were ranked above Brown. When Cornell nudged itself into 10th place in 2000, The Sun printed a story declaring the University’s admission into the “coveted top 10,” despite the fact that we shared the position with Columbia and the University of Chicago.
And who can forget the embarrassing New York Times story on Cornell’s (student-run) image committee, which betrayed just how much rankings matter to Cornellians?
Many of the image committee’s initiatives aimed at making Cornell look more “traditional,” a euphemism for casting the University in the mold of its older peers in the hope of joining their ranks: using the circular logo with the University crest instead of the red square; convincing the Cornell bookstore to introduce a new line of Cornell wear that resembled other Ivy gear; and revamping the website to make it more “elegant.”
These efforts seem to have yielded success. Last year, Thomas W. Bruce, vice president for university communications, said the committee was instrumental in admitting a fewer percentage of any persons to a school where “any person [can] find instruction in any study.”
In the admissions office’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of rankings is a thinly veiled legerdemain. On one hand, admissions cannot say that the rankings matter lest they denigrate the University with respect to its higher-ranked peers. On the other, an admissions director would be remiss in her duties if she did not watch the rankings, which Cornell Prof. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, ILR, showed — in a study in the late 90s — are correlated with the applicant pool, acceptance rate and yield of a university. Simply put, the higher a school is ranked, the more ambitious high school students will apply and attend. The rankings are in fact self-perpetuating; if good students attend higher-ranked schools one year, these same schools will remain higher-ranked the following year.
The annual rankings fiasco is a game everyone plays but everyone denies playing. And this is why we should stop playing:
The rankings encourage students to make uninformed and biased decisions about their education based on an algorithm they are unaware of. They provide a superficial evaluation of educational institutions and encourage a “brand,” university-as-commodity approach to education. They create unnecessary anxiety for high school students in the already angst-ridden application process and detract from student satisfaction once one ends up at a school.
Peter Cohl ’05, a founder of Cornell’s image committee, told the Times that when Cornell’s rank drops, “[M]y value as a human being feels like it’s dropping.”
It’s done with Cornell’s blessing year after year. Participation in the U.S. News and World Report rankings is not compulsory. This past year, a cadre of liberal arts colleges pledged not to participate, thus diminishing their importance with respect to the ranking of liberal arts colleges. The rankings only matter because Cornell and its peers make them matter.
Despite its recent and ill-conceived attempt to “wrap itself in Ivy,” what makes Cornell special is that it differs in important ways from its Ivy League peers. Cornell should pride itself on being progressive amid a group where progress has often been encumbered by adherence to tradition. Cornell was the first Ivy to admit women. From its inception, admission was offered without respect to race or religion. Its democratic credo — “any person, any study” — sets it apart from old-fashioned Latin banners of truth or divine providence.
In the same way that Cornell has been a leader in these respects, it should be a leader in withdrawing from the rankings. Princeton drastically changed the admissions game for the better when it eliminated binding early decision, which had been criticized for putting low-income and minority students at a disadvantage. This was done for the benefit of its students in spite of the fear that it would put the university at a disadvantage. Other universities followed suit.
Cornell has a similar opportunity to change the admissions game by refusing to submit information to U.S. News and World Report. In the short run, it might put the University at a disadvantage when high school students do not see Cornell on the rankings list. But if Cornell is simply waiting for places like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton to make the first move, then maybe the rankings say more about us than we would like to admit.
Gabriel Arana is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The Red Line appears Thursdays.