The news that Columbia University filed fraudulent data to rise in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings has again raised the question of what these rankings mean. Does anyone imagine that as Columbia "plunged" from No. 2 to No. 18 (as its ranking was reassessed by U.S. News on its own estimated data) that the Columbia students sitting in their classrooms in upper Manhattan felt the quality of their education slipping away?
Columbia is exactly the same university at No. 18 as it was at No. 2. Nothing real in any student experience is different. Nor will it change if Columbia manages to claw its way back up. Is the University of Chicago (No. 6) a tiny bit better than University of Pennsylvania at No. 7? Or objectively 10 places superior to lowly Cornell, way down at No. 17?
These rankings have zero to do with what is real about a college or university, and it is time to once again declare them bunk and encourage families, prospective college students and all media folks to ignore them.
Schools are not, in some holistic abstract way, "better" or "worse." They are different and serve different students. Some schools are wealthy and prestigious; others are huge with diverse, niche programs or are small and focused on the liberal arts. Some may have emphases like study abroad or interdisciplinary majors, while others provide a strong sense of belonging for specific students (historically Black colleges or universities and Hispanic-serving institutions).
Plenty of research has demonstrated that prestigious names can make a difference in earnings and opportunities for some students--first-generation or low-income--but make no appreciable difference for others. (Holding other variables constant, most white males get no salary bump by going to Harvard over the University of West Virginia.) And no student is served well if they choose a school where they don't succeed academically, socially and emotionally.
The U.S. News rankings emerged in a time when information about specific colleges and universities was harder to find. They provided a guide for those unfamiliar with the many options out there. Today there is perhaps too much information, so the rankings may serve as a simple way to sort universities.
But as someone who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I would like to encourage every college-bound student to ignore these numbers and instead borrow a technique from my discipline of cultural anthropology.
Over time, schools create a culture. In a smaller college, that culture may extend to virtually every part of campus. In a large university, there may be many "subcultures," in the engineering school or in Greek life or among the theater students. Going to the campus, spending the night (not only taking in the preformed admissions presentation), sitting in a class and talking to students can reveal what is really happening in the parts of the school you care about. Anthropologists call this ethnography.
This sort of research might not be an option for every student, given the time and cost involved, but every student can find alumni from that school (the more recent the better), write to current students and join a social media account run by students there. Figure out the culture--the vibe--of the classrooms, dorms, groups or communities within the college where you would likely spend your time.
Brian Howell is a professor of anthropology at Wheaton College.