Lyndsey Wajert: More than a number

Many current Facebook users may not remember the short-lived “compare friends” application. Those curious enough – and arguably, vain enough – to check their standings every day would casually publicize the fact that they were voted “cutest” or “most datable” of all of their online friends. Well, if “compare colleges” became a new application on the popular social networking site, GW might not want to share its standing on its profile.

At least that is what a New York Times article, published on Sept. 1, suggests. The piece entitled “U.S. News Rankings: Yes, They Matter” cites a new study in the journal Research in Higher Education as the basis for the argument that a school’s standing on the U.S. News and World Report list does influence important factors for universities.

GW holds the spot of 53rd in the 2009 U.S. News rankings. Studies have shown that if a school breaks the top 50, they accept fewer students the following year. They also accept students with higher SAT scores. GW just missed this cut. Also, according to the Times article, “moving up in the U.S. News rankings has been associated with an improvement in the next year’s admissions, such as lower acceptance rates, higher yields., SAT scores of admitted students and other standard measures.” But GW’s rankings did not change from 2008.

Naturally, a rise in ratings may bring about more publicity, which can lead to an increase in applicants and greater selectivity. But does GW’s unchanged ranking mean that the applicant pool for the class of 2014 will be exactly the same? If we fell to 54th, or climbed into the top 50, would the pool significantly change?

An association is not necessarily a causal link. To make that leap, one would have to ignore the other equally publicized college ratings. Other organizations, rating different factors, come out with different results. For example, Forbes Magazine has a new list of its own, entitled “America’s Best Colleges.” Considered factors include four-year graduation rates, student satisfaction with courses and post-graduate employment success. The Military Academy at West Point holds the number one spot, while GW flounders at number 429. The disparity between these two lists alone demonstrates how differently publications compare colleges.

Both magazines use different criteria, arguably just as individual students consider varying conditions when listing their top schools. For example, GW may top the list of a politically active student looking for an urban campus, while another high school senior may want a school with a strong international affairs program. GW should continue to focus on the attributes of the school that cause students to apply, and on the attributes of admitted students who succeed once here.

GW should take these steps regardless of where we stand on a publication’s list comparing us to other schools, and regardless of how limited research suggests that certain rankings supposedly affect admissions. It may be too much to suggest that universities should ignore college rankings found in various magazines, no matter how established and popular they are.

There is something appealing about saying “We’re No. 1,” as opposed to “We’re in the top 60!” But it seems odd that what was originally presented as a comparison of American schools is now being used to increase pay for the presidents of some universities (as noted by the Inside Higher Education piece titled “Should U.S. News Make Presidents Rich”), or for schools to alter their admissions’ processes based on magazines. It would be nice if in this Facebook-centered world, the “Compare Colleges” application fell into disfavor.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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