And maybe we’re inching toward the day when it won’t be. Since the publication of my book about all of this, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” in 2015, I’ve seen baby steps of progress, especially over the past year. In November, Yale and Harvard announced that their law schools would no longer participate in U.S. News rankings. Several similarly venerated law schools and several top-ranked medical schools followed suit. Then, last month, Colorado College pulled out of the U.S. News rankings of national colleges, though it had consistently landed in the top 30. In a statement explaining that decision, its president observed that the rankings are driven largely by the magnitude of an institution’s wealth and general, longstanding reputation. Both measures tend to be self-perpetuating. Neither tells students all that much about what their experience at a school will be like.
“I have a lot of hope that this is the turning point,” Angel Pérez, the chief executive officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told me recently. Pérez has been working in the field of college admissions for decades — he was in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., for many years. He said that change is definitely in order, because too many students simply take the most obvious cues from the culture around them, latching onto national or regional brand names that seem vaguely dependable. During his travels around the country to talk with prospective college applicants, he has had students reflexively proclaim, “I want to go to Harvard!”
“And I’d say, ‘Where is Harvard located?’ They couldn’t tell me,” he recalled.
Of course, most high school students who want a college degree can’t and don’t harbor such ambitions. They need to go to college part-time, to choose public institutions within commuting distance from their parents’ homes, to select the cheapest option or to find a place that takes almost all comers, because they struggled through high school and emerged with unremarkable transcripts. Only a privileged minority of young people can even think about playing “The Hunger Games,” and many of them simply turn in whatever direction all the other contestants are headed.
Brian Casey, the president of Colgate University, marveled to me: “Our applications for admission, which hovered around 9,000 for many, many years, suddenly doubled to 17,500. Then they increased to over 21,000. We have to turn away students who want tours and we find ourselves looking at an admit rate of 10 percent. Has this deterred students from applying? No. We find interest growing even further. I am left wondering: Is Colgate more desirable because it is more desired?”
Well, yes. Higher education is a marketplace. And many of its consumers care more about how they can outwardly trade on their college degree than about how it will inwardly transform them. “I saw this firsthand during a lunch with first-year students that had just unpacked their bags the prior day,” David Schanzer, a fellow professor of public policy at Duke, wrote in December in his newsletter, Perilous Times. “I started the lunch conversation asking the students what they were most looking forward to about college and, I kid you not, one of them asked me what activities they should do to maximize their chances for admission to law school. When I answered that the best approach was to find something they loved doing and doing it well and that Duke didn’t have a pre-law program, the student’s response was, ‘Why not?’”