I’ll admit it. When U.S. News & World Report issued its annual rankings of colleges and universities, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that Columbia had held its number four slot, right behind three other Ivy League schools known together as HYP. And although none of my friends really talked about it at length, everyone seemed to know about its release, whether it was through Spec, Bwog, or friends on campus.
I’ll come out and say it: Rankings aren’t everything. Experts in education will argue that rankings only touch upon the superficial aspects of our universities. And they’re right. But for whatever reason, it seems like a validation of my experience here at Columbia.
For Columbians, there doesn’t seem to be any question as to why our school would be ranked in the top five. The Core Curriculum, the vibrant New York City environment, and the diverse array of student opinions make Columbia a top school for many of us. It is thanks to these reasons that I’ve developed into the person I am today.
However, as many know, that is not what the rankings measure. Instead, they choose to focus on how much alumni donate back to the school and how much professors make. These factors are important, but they miss the mark and don’t take note of what is really important in determining what makes a college or university great. Especially because much of this information is self-reported, I actually worry that these rankings may put undue pressure on administrators and school officials to focus on aspects that help the rankings, but don’t really help students at all. Some have argued that Dean Peña-Mora was a victim of this pressure, increasing class sizes and fundraising across the country at the expense of the quality of education at the engineering school.
I would be lying, though, if I said rankings don’t help to form biases toward our schools and help to guide our decisions. It’s in our everyday behavior. We Yelp for five-star restaurants, look for gold nuggets on CULPA, and look at ratings for movies on Rotten Tomatoes. We want to be sure that we’re getting the best we possibly can. Yet how many times have we gone to the “best” movie, which was raved about in reviews and by our friends, only to find it a complete dud? Unfortunately, too many in my experience.
Even if rankings are important, Columbia seems to catch a wide array of them. During my time at Columbia, we’ve been ranked as the most stressful school by Newsweek, and at the same time, also ranked ninth in the schools with the happiest freshmen, according to the researchers at the Center of College Affordability and Productivity (who seemingly have never lived in New York). Is it possible that we could have both the most stressed and happiest freshmen? I’d think not.
Rankings try to aggregate quantitative information and also try to quantify the things that can’t best be described in numbers. They help people believe that there is a scientific backing behind them, helping to confirm and demonstrate that this university is undoubtedly better than another (I mean, look, it’s in the numbers!).
But the key word there is “try.” Rankings try to use metrics that just don’t apply or exist. You simply can’t quantify watching a movie marathon on the weekend with your friends in Carman, or eating a slice of Koronet’s pizza at 3 a.m. after a night out. And you shouldn’t. These are experiences that have no numerical value, no matter how hard statisticians might try to spin them. Yet how much more do they mean to us? These are the events that we will sometimes remember more than the reading that was assigned in seminar one week.
So, alas, we must move beyond the numbers. It’ll take time, but we must understand that the only ranking college can have is the one you assign, one that forgets about the cost of living, attrition rate, and graduation rate, and one that focuses on your own personal experience.
Professor Andrew Delbanco perhaps says it best when he references one of his students trying to explain what college did for him in his newest book “College”: “Columbia ... taught me how to enjoy life.” It almost sounds too simple, too vague. But perhaps complicating the definition has muddled what really matters in a college education. Perhaps the best part about that student’s statement is the fact that “enjoyment” remains vague—it is something unique that each of us has to define on our own.
In the end, what rankings show us is a nicely statistically regressed number. And it’s just that: a number.
Ryan Cho is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science. He is president of the Multicultural Greek Council and a member of Lambda Phi Epsilon. Let’s Be Real runs alternate Wednesdays.