Stepping off the Whirligig

Twenty years ago the best colleges and universities in the U. S. turned up their noses at the US News & World Report’s “best colleges” ratings. At the beginning of last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article in The New Yorker tearing the ratings to small fine shreds. Other shredding operations have been conducted, and sensible people should consider them disposed of. Far from it: the ratings continue to make their undead way, arms outstretched, towards successive classes of high-school seniors caught up in the admissions “process.”

And not just the high-school seniors. Even very good universities that have ten or twenty applicants for each place, and that should be ignoring the ratings game, produce mailers that they send to top scorers on the SAT. Their own “thin envelope” letters note that there are many qualified applicants for every place, so why do they do it? The only explanation can be that they want to have a higher ratio of applications to admissions in order to boost their ratings.

Only such thinking can explain another phenomenon, the move towards viewing admission interviews by alumni/ae as a marketing tool. Admissions officers from good or excellent universities “explain” that an interview acts as a kind of “bonding experience” shown to be effective by market research in producing a “yes” from admitted high-school seniors. The more “yeses,” the higher the yield ratio and the resulting rating.

There seems to be no end in sight to the nonsense, for it is difficult to detach oneself from the whirligig. Gladwell notes that even the statistics about the “value” of a top-shelf degree comprise other factors than just the quality of the education received, but it doesn’t stop the clamor at the ivy gates. High school teachers and counselors as well as the parents of juniors and seniors should be helping students to look beyond the dazzle of university ratings to make intelligent and satisfying choices, but very often our role ends up being to console them when those gates slam in their faces.


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