Beyond the Rankings

There is more to a college than the numbers

Last Thursday at 5 p.m., the Admissions Committee offered 1,119 students the opportunity to join the Harvard College Class of 2020. Alongside the 918 applicants admitted in December, these students will form the most selective class in school history, with only 5.2 percent of more than 39,000 applicants receiving offers of admission.

The admissions statistics are promising in terms of racial and socioeconomic diversity. The percentage of the admitted class that identifies as African American rose from 12.1 to 14 percent, and those identifying as Asian American rose from 21 to 22.1 percent. Furthermore, one fifth of all accepted students come from households earning less than $65,000 per year.

Harvard should continue its push to diversify its student body, as these efforts have contributed to making its undergraduate experience so unique. At the same time, a certain tension will always exist between the goals of having a diverse and inclusive class, and of keeping our community at its current size. As admissions offices at Harvard and other selective schools successfully reach ever more talented students, rates of admission to will inevitably continue to be low. While it is tempting to judge all universities by simple metrics like these admissions statistics, we can only glean so much from these numbers.

In fact, the formulas used to construct college rankings are largely arbitrary. Weighting different factors of the student experience more heavily—for example, valuing cost effectiveness over student-to-teacher ratio—can drastically alter the lists. As a result, universities have discovered a variety of tactics to game these rankings, using loopholes like the fact that U.S. News and World Report does not consider spring enrollment in order to artificially inflate its apparent selectivity.

The most commonly published lists therefore have the effect of creating and reaffirming conventional wisdom about the relative quality of different schools. But they do not reflect quality of education or lifestyle or value for money in a complete way. And at their worst, they can have a detrimental effect, keeping students from asking why they want to attend one school over another. The place where a student will spend four of the most formative years of one’s life deserves more attention than a glance at the rankings. While Harvard and its selective peers are institutions where incredible experiences take place every day, statistics do not do justice to their most crucial qualities. A transformational experience cannot be quantified by statistics.

For this reason, neither students nor admissions officers should give in to the temptation to put too much stock in low acceptance rates. For students, understanding what kind of institution they want for their college experience should be the goal of their decision making process. And while Harvard's admissions office should double down on its commitment to forming the most diverse and accomplished classes possible, it and its counterparts at other institutions should never seek to artificially inflate their applications in order to be competitive in the rankings.

Ultimately, numbers will remain crude measurements of the college experience. Prospective students should focus on finding a meaningful college experience, wherever that may be. Well under 1 percent of college students attend schools as selective as Harvard. Despite its merits, Harvard is not perfect for everyone, even if statistics seem to paint it as such. A fulfilling college experience does not depend on such arbitrary numerical indicators.