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Vain or Valuable?: The College Rankings that Actually Matter

By Tyler Wayne Patterson /// Web & Social Media Manager

Recently, Thrillist.com ranked Lewis & Clark as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. They were transparent with their values: architecture, location & landscape and historic structures. But LC got a special shout-out that none of the other schools did. The writer included: “Apparently, the students are also really attractive, which can only makes the campus more beautiful, right?”

But here is the thing: As much as I agree, that isn’t a fact.

The Thrillist journalist didn’t visit our campus to rank the attractiveness of our buildings, gardens or student body. The journalist probably used photos, former rankings and student-reviews on sites like CollegeProwler by Pioneers themselves. Somehow the writer came to the conclusion that we were slightly less attractive than University of Michigan and slightly more attractive than Kenyon College.

So why did LC get this special shout-out?

First, LC frequently ranks high on lists of beautiful schools, which makes it a selling point for many LC students. Many students who choose LC for its appearance are looks-oriented.

Second, you know how when you are stuck with the same people the people around you start to become more and more attractive to you?

Well, if you mix these looks-oriented students who chose this campus based on its aesthetics with the small size of the community (where people look more and more attractive the longer you are here), you get student reviews raving about how attractive students are all over the internet. Reviews that Thrillist probably referred to when making their observation.

See how arbitrary this comment may have been? See how the ranking is purely based on the aesthetic preferences of one writer? College rankings are usually arbitrary.

So, what college rankings actually matter?

Well, the “Most ‘Insta-Worthy’ Campuses” list is far more useful than the US News and World Report Best Colleges Rankings.

Why? Because the factor hercampus.com is considering when developing its list of “Most Insta-Worthy Campuses” is transparent: How well does the landscape of the college translate into beautiful Instagram photos?

Meanwhile, US New & World Report ranks nearly every single college in the United States using a complicated arbitrary list of values. Things like high school counselor ratings and the self-reported income of graduates.

Why is any Liberal Arts College better or worse than another? Unless you acquire and spend time deciphering the algorithm of values, you have no idea why any college is “better.” Yet so many consumers accept these lists at face value.

USNWR does have a lot of pull. College leadership across the nation spends enormous amounts on new facilities to compete with other schools on the list.

“Niche” college rankings

LC charts high on many “niche” lists: The Princeton Review’s 20 most ‘Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarian’ colleges, Least Religious Students, Most Beautiful Campuses, Social Giveback, Best Undergraduate Teaching and Best Study Abroad Programs to name a few.

These lists, though perhaps arbitrary in where exactly each campus falls, are far more useful for deciding on a college than the comprehensive USNWR list. Do you value international scholarship, beautiful gardens to study in and vegetarian students? LC is probably the school for you—and these “niche” lists will lead you here.

But if you simply value your school being ranked against schools with student cultures and programs that don’t interest you, you would probably end up somewhere you aren’t happy.

I do not want to conclude that holistic college rankings only yield negative results. These lists hold schools accountable for delivering quality instruction and keeping prices down. But there is a problem when readers come to view the independent news sources as the sole authority of college “rankings” and accept these rankings at face value. Not everyone can go to an ivy-league school—and not everyone wants to. If you were to rely on USNWR, you’d be told that there are dozens of better schools you could be at—but are they better for your education?

Stick to lists that are transparent and share your values when you are looking for the right fit.

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