Off the beat: Reading beyond the ranks

To no one’s surprise, UC Berkeley ranked first among public universities in the nation last week. That was according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2015 edition of their annual list. The campus swelled with pride, links were shared around Facebook and Twitter, and high school students — and their parents — took careful note.

College rankings aim to be like a Consumer Reports for colleges, but choosing where to get your education is more complicated than deciding whether or not you should buy the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus — or should you go with an Android? Different college experiences cannot be compared the same way we compare screen sizes or battery life. And for most, the commitment is longer than their two-year phone contract, and a lot more costly.

What college rankings often ignore — and de-emphasize to prospective college consumers — is that moving to college is first and foremost a change of location and people. Academics are important, but even more important is the type of environment you live in and the people you meet. Chasing admission to Princeton University may get you into a top school, but it still lands you in a suburban campus with a small undergraduate class size that rivals some high schools. UC Berkeley is 20th on the U.S. News list, but it is only the second school on the list with more than 10,000 undergraduates. If you want a top-ranked school with a large student body, you are almost out of luck. And when decisions are down to the wire, most pick the higher ranked.

Now that I am three years out of high school, I have had the opportunity to talk with friends from home about their experiences in college — what they liked and didn’t like, what they wished they’d known in high school. The responses I hear most often, by far, are of dissatisfaction with their school’s location and number of students. Some who chose their school for academics have since transferred elsewhere to find a school with a location and social atmosphere that better suited them.

These small nuances about each college campus aren’t readily apparent from a simple rankings list. You can’t sum up in a list what it’s like to be taught by one particularly brilliant professor or what the character of a campus’ surrounding city is like. There are certain qualitative factors that various rankings try and do sum up with numbers, but those numbers ignore a wide range of backgrounds from which college students naturally come. What’s right for one student won’t be right for another. The wide variances between the different rankings show this to be true.

UC Berkeley ranked 20 in last week’s U.S. News and World report ranking, but 27th in the QS World University Rankings released Tuesday. But it also ranks 8th according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014 and third according to Washington Monthly’s rankings.

And the campus is not even consistently the top public school. QS World University Rankings say the campus ranks second among public schools below University of Michigan, and Washington Monthly puts UC Berkeley as third, after UC San Diego and UC Riverside.

Each ranking has its own methodology, and each one tries to brand itself as the definitive university ranking. Each methodology has its own flaws and strengths, the most criticized being the famous “reputation” score used by U.S. News and World Reports. For that ranking, “undergraduate academic reputation” is tied with “graduation and retention rates” as the most important factor for choosing which colleges are the best. One is an actual measure of educational achievement — the other measures branding.

Valuing reputation above other criteria such as “faculty resources” not only misrepresents schools, but also misleads students to choose schools based on ranking by suggesting those rankings are tied directly with academics, when they are actually based on something much less tangible. Other rankings such as Washington Monthly organize schools by their “contribution to the public good.” This is useful for evaluating schools overall, but not for helping students choose schools that are right for them. The U.S. government’s ranking system, however, is more oriented toward evaluating the different traits of a school based on which students find most important to themselves.

Before coming to UC Berkeley, I knew about its ranking as the top public university, I knew about its location in the city of Berkeley, and I knew about its large size. All of those factors were important to me, and I was excited about experiencing each one as part of my four years here. Had I not expected the size or location of the campus, however, I think, like some of my friends from home, I would have found my experience less pleasant. Those lifestyle elements have proven the most important to me and my friends at other schools, but they are criteria often left out of college rankings. College rankings should ultimately be made individually, person-by-person, to take into account the wide range of human experiences.

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