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  • Writer's pictureDina

The Magical College Ranking

Chen Liu

I walked into the multi-variable calculus class, feeling miserable.

Before the semester started, I looked up my professor, who was the only one that taught the course back then, on He was certainly not one of the top 10 most popular math teachers; on the contrary, he was one of the lowest-rated professors based on an overall score. Sadly, I had no choice but to chew it up.

I was glad I stayed. His class was indeed challenging for a community college course, the reason why he got ranked so low on the website. However, he was one of the best teachers I had ever met and made his classes the same level of difficulty as the calculus classes at UC’s, and I learned how to succeed in not only this class but also the classes I had after transferring to UCLA.

But does that mean I would no longer look at the rankings? The answer is no. I check the ratings of the restaurants on Yelp when finding a place for my friend’s birthday dinner. I search for the best VPN’s before I download one for my trip overseas. Now as the US News has recently released the college rankings of 2020, I couldn’t wait to explore the surprises, as well as shocks.

Let’s be honest. We like rankings, or more precisely, we rely on rankings. As early as in the 1950s, George Miller, a Harvard psychologist who helped with the founding of cognitive psychology, uncovered that in addition to passively transmitting the incoming information, people recode the array into mind-friendly categories, which Miller called “chunks.” Chunks of recognition can take on various forms, and the numbered list, college rankings in our case, is one of them. Moreover, it’s evident that striving for greatness is a fundamental inner drive, which can occur in a range of areas such as sports, academics, and performance. So it’s natural for the college-bound kids and their parents to look at a ranked college list, trying to figure out the best place they can get in.

Built on Miller’s theories, Isaac and Schindler documented six experiments on our ability to process information in their paper, The Top-Ten Effect: Consumers’ Subjective Categorization of Ranked List. They found out that the round-number categories, rather than the exact value, guide the interpretation of the ranked list. For example, we use terms such as Top-10 or Top-20 frequently. Moreover, people tend to exaggerate the differences between ranks bordering round-number categories. Thus, a bump from number 11 to 9 results in a more significant effect on the consumers/readers than going from number 24 to 22.That’s why when UCLA finally makes its way to the Top-20 or when SCU gets its upgrade from a regional school to the national category, we are astonished and become even more obsessed with the college rankings.

However, it’s dangerous if we only look at these numbers without considering the context. Many of us are not aware that rankings do not necessarily speak of qualities. There are numbers of college ranking systems out there. The methodologies implemented by different systems lead to different results. Except for the top ones that are outstanding in every way, the rankings of a particular college vary across lists. Knowing how it is done, colleges are able to play with the ranking. Think about this: why some schools would take the risk to misreport their data. Furthermore, as revealed in Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Where You’ll Be, funding is always one of the criteria and sometimes valued high, but it remains ambiguous how a college should spend the money—upgrading the equipment and devices in the biology lab or building a new recreation center.

It’s worth noting that students and parents are not the only ones obsessed with the college rankings. So do the colleges. We are living in the digital era, where technologies make applying to multiple schools possible and easier than ever. What comes with more applicants is not just the applications fees, but also the drop in acceptance rate—part of the factors affecting the ranking. Speaking of attracting applicants, I believe there is no better commercial than a positive impression from the numbered list.

So how should we evaluate these lists? When I look up the restaurants on Yelp, I go over the menus as well. If I can’t decide on which one of the recommended VPN’s to purchase, I read through the reviews and find the one that meets my need. Admittedly, rankings are important because they provide the foundation of assessment. The top-10 schools and the ones ranked 20 to 30 have different expectations on the applicants. But keep in mind that they are useful references, not destinations.

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