Students shouldn't look at "best" college rankings

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The start of the school year brings another wave of highly-esteemed magazines, newspapers and higher-education-focused organizations releasing their rankings of the "best" colleges in the U.S. These rankings vary greatly among different publications — U.S. News & World Report gave the University a ranking of "53rd national university" on Sept. 9, Washington Monthly ranked UT 20th in the world on Aug. 25, Forbes assigned UT the rank of 76th overall in July and the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings placed UT in the 33rd spot. Most rankings include a brief description of the methodology behind the number, which is great, but doesn't negate the fact that these rankings are attempts to encompass each of the "best" schools in a single number, an impossible feat.

Placing a number on a school seems like a simple, consolidated way to determine its worth, but looking at college rankings can give someone a false sense of knowledge of how valuable the school is, causing the prospective student to form insignificant preconceived notions before considering other aspects of the school.

Some of these ranking systems, such as that of Washington Monthly, include a whole host of data alongside a singular number for each university, which begs the question of why the publication even includes an overall ranking. The people who ranked the school might place much more weight on a particular data point of the school, such as average debt or prevalence of research opportunities, than a particular student would, which renders the numbers under the catch-all category of "top schools" or "best colleges" essentially meaningless.

The Princeton Review almost, but not quite, refrains from ranking the "best" schools. It does publish a list of the top 379 schools, but doesn't number them from 1 to 379, and the rest of its rankings are based on student surveys about specific criteria, such as how religious students are, how often students study and how accessible professors are. Ranking systems should move toward the model of assigning numbers only to each aspect of a school and encourage students to compare numbers based on these students’ individual priorities rather than on an arbitrary judgment of the "overall best" school.