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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Officials to clear homeless encampment near campus in May
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • March 4, 2024

Quick Take: Truth, lies and the problem with college rankings

Let’s be skeptical about which schools are the “best” in the nation.

“There are three kinds of lies: ‘lies, damned lies and statistics,’” to quote Mark Twain, who in turn attributed the phrase to a British prime minister. Add national college rankings to that list.

GW slipped from No. 62 to No. 67 in this year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings, which pitted 435 universities against each other to earn the number one spot in American higher education. But just like Twain’s “lies, damned lies and statistics,” there is reason to be skeptical about which schools clinch the title of among best in the nation — and what schools are best for whom, exactly. So, what’s the truth?

The problem is not so much that GW’s ranking dropped but how and why it did — though that’s not to mention how the U.S. News fumbled basic information like the University’s moniker. In sports, you work the referees. In statistics, you work the numbers. U.S. News switched up its methodology for its 2023-2024 rankings, nixing certain factors like class size and alumni donations to emphasize “social mobility” and outcomes for graduating students.

With a mission like that, you’d think the rankings might showcase affordable, accessible public universities that punch well above their weight. But like every other year, Princeton, Harvard and Yale universities — not to mention other traditionally prestigious — and elite — institutions still ended up in the top 10. So while other schools may have jumped ahead or fallen down compared to the competition, the nation’s “best” schools can rest on their laurels, trading top positions with each other from year to year.

Evidently, U.S. News doesn’t factor in statistics like “number of miles from national landmarks” or “Smithsonian Museums per student.” If you know you want certain types of schools to come out on top, all you have to do is pick the data that reflects your definition of “best.”

That’s one reason some law schools have withdrawn from the company’s rankings even as the larger universities they belong to continue to share their data with U.S. News. If the goal is to shape young minds into intelligent citizens, do alumni donations and class sizes really matter?

Yet as flawed as these rankings are, it’s a little difficult to ignore them entirely. Some prospective students and their parents still rely on them to parse through hundreds of universities that all claim some variation of the same tagline: A world-class education in an exciting setting. And for officials, minute changes in the University’s ranking are the difference between celebration and consternation.

All the same, these rankings contain only a sliver of what it’s like to attend any college or university. The real experience of attending college can’t be found in a spreadsheet — and that’s the truth.

Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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About the Contributor
Ethan Benn, Opinions Editor
Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.
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