October 2, 2020

WANG | The Ridiculousness of Rankings

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Last week, I was perusing the opinion section of The Sun, trying to figure out what I was going to write about, when I came across an article arguing that since Cornell has slid to 18th on the U.S News and World Report, Cornell should be focusing more of its time and resources on improving said ranking. Personally, I strongly disagree. I believe that college rankings are an imprecise metric that should play little, if any, role in your decisions when choosing colleges. Choosing a college should not be about rank. It should be about where you think you’re going to thrive and do best, and some ranking isn’t going to change that.

I can confirm this from personal experience, as someone who just recently went through the college admissions process. In fact, I was actually deciding between Cornell and another school. And I can confidently tell you that the rankings of the schools I was deciding between did not factor at all into my ultimate decision to attend Cornell. Yes, part of the reason I applied to Cornell was because I knew it was a prestigious institution. But it’s also because of things like the unique majors, such as the China and Asia Pacific Studies major.And it’s not just me. One of my close friends chose Cornell, over schools like Princeton and Columbia, both of which, according to U.S News and World Report, are more prestigious institutions, at number one and three respectively, because she got a prestigious scholarship here. The rankings don’t reflect that.

I also take issue with the idea we should start reforming Cornell to move up in the U.S News and World Report Rankings, especially since the ranking factors are a lot less scientific and a lot more subjective than one would think. Yes, they take into account important factors like graduation and retention rates and social mobility, but they also place 20 percent of their ranking on “undergraduate academic reputation,” which is based off of a “peer assessment survey.” You may be wondering what this peer assessment survey is. Basically, U.S. News and World Report sends a survey to administrators at various colleges and asks them to rank the academic quality of a college on a scale from one to five. This means the survey is highly subjective, as how administrators rank various colleges is highly dependent on the administrator’s personal biases and opinions. As a result, not only is the survey highly imprecise, but also ensures that certain schools consistently end up near the top, just because they’ve always been viewed as prestigious institutions, and not necessarily because the quality of education there is higher than a lower-ranked school.

Plus, this peer assessment survey is weighed just as heavily as other, more important factors, such as  faculty resources, and four times more than things like social mobility and graduate indebtedness. So I am really curious, how do you propose improving that? Sending cookies to the Dean of Harvard Admissions in the hopes that they’ll suddenly rank Cornell higher?

Furthermore, seven percent of their ranking is based on “student selectivity,” and in particular, standardized test scores, which makes up about five percent. But the SAT/ACT range of a school tells you very little about the intelligence of the student body, or how academically strenuous an institution is. There’s already been a lot of controversy over whether colleges should even use tests like the ACT and SAT in admissions, since at best, the tests seem to reflect the lack of socioeconomic diversity at an institution. In placing emphasis on a college’s SAT/ACT score ranges, the U.S News and World Report encourages colleges to keep standardized testing, despite its many flaws, for fear moving down in the rankings.

Colleges should also not be aiming to improve “their student selectivity.” To truly follow Ezra Cornell’s vision, Cornell should be trying expand access to their educational resources, not gatekeep so we can protect our brand as an “elite, selective institution.” After all, Ezra Cornell founded the university on the idea of “any person, any study,” not “any person with high SAT scores, any study.” Plus, even as college acceptance rates have declined, there is no proof that rapidly shrinking acceptance rates correlate with any increase in quality of education.

There are so many other issues Cornell could and should be focusing on, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. Focusing on changing the number next to our name on a list is definitely not one of them.


Wendy Wang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Common Nonsense runs every other Friday this semester.