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The problem with ranking colleges like mine

They’re subjective and don’t account for the total student experience.

Columbia University has the nation's most politically active

Columbia University has the nation's most politically active campus, according to The Princeton Reivew. Credit: AP / Diane Bondareff

The Princeton Review recently released its “The Best 382 Colleges” guide for 2018. My school, George Washington, fell in the rankings of most politically active universities. For the past four years, it was first. This year, it ranked 10th, and Columbia University was No. 1. Knowing how politically involved my campus can be, I feel sorry for students at universities that are even more insanely politically active.

After experiencing the 2016 presidential election, when hundreds of students ran to the White House on election night to watch electoral results and to protest, and when our student government election ended with three presidential candidates leaving the election and our elected vice president becoming president, it’s unclear what more GW could have done to hold onto its first-place rating.

But that’s the issue with these rankings — they’re subjective and don’t account for the total student experience.

The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report publish just two of the college rankings I obsessed over when applying to colleges in 2013. But now, as I enter my last year of college, I’ve realized the lists didn’t provide any helpful insider wisdom in the bottomless sea of college information and internet rankings. While the rankings may supply some information on campus life and the best dining halls, they never contributed to my individual experience at school.

The ranking by Princeton Review, which is not associated with the university, is based on student surveys. The data is then sold in books, displayed in high school counseling offices and offered as a way to help students find their perfect schools. Next month, U.S. News will publish its annual college rankings. In 2017, Princeton was ranked No. 1 for the sixth year in a row as U.S. News’ best university in the country. But a student applying to Princeton will likely also seek entry to other colleges known as the best in the country.

While the rankings will undoubtedly mean something to high school juniors and seniors during the SAT prep and college application process, it’s important to consider how these rankings are put together. When picking a college, students should be more concerned about the experience they want, rather than where their school falls on a list.

The Princeton Review rankings have been around since 1992. The editors choose which colleges they will rank based in part on “our high opinion of their academics.” The U.S. News’ rankings are based on more quantitative measures. Colleges are ranked based on graduation and retention rates, undergraduate academic reputation, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance and alumni giving. But, just as the Princeton Review’s basis for which universities are included is highly subjective, U.S. News’ assessment of undergraduate academic reputation is in part based on what college administrators say about their peer institutions.

Unfortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about my university’s ranking. Since I applied to GW, its ranking fell and its admission’s selectivity, the percentage of applicants who are accepted, has soared above 40 percent. Now, there are times when I wonder whether my degree has depreciated in value before I’ve even received it. Then I remember that my decision to attend GW came down to its location, the major I wanted and my understanding that a liberal arts degree from a school ranked 56th in the nation is no different from one ranked 40th or 70th.

As summer nears an end and a new crop of high school seniors starts filling out college applications, it’s important to remember that a college ranking is not indicative of what a college experience will be. We should all encourage students to pick schools based on interests, financial resources and campus environments instead of a subjective, ever-changing ranking.

Melissa Holzberg is an intern with Newsday Opinion.

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