Chun: #12 (Tied)

by Steven Chun | 3/6/16 6:45pm

U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings are constantly critiqued, decried and loudly dismissed. But in the hearts of prospective students and college officials, they hold a secret power. They held a power over me during my own college search not long ago and play a role in my younger sister’s, which is just beginning. With no familial or athletic connection to any one particular university and parents who simply attended local colleges, our search had to start somewhere. To even admit the credence, I, as a junior and senior in high school, gave to the rankings feels wrong. The myriad of college rankings reflect, perhaps poorly, the state of higher education. But what I find most interesting is the dichotomy between universities and liberal arts colleges. It’s a dichotomy that Dartmouth doesn’t fit into. Yet, this division dictates a list that ­ — despite universal criticism — holds incredible sway over prospective students’ decisions.

So we’re an oddball in this poorly put together, but powerful list of colleges. While not quite one of the tiny, liberal arts colleges, we “compete” (to use that word loosely) against universities that are fundamentally different. Herein lies my fear: we are trying to be something that we are not. This is not a critique of any specific policy, not even the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative — which so often finds itself under attack on these pages — but rather as a word of caution. For years now, there has been a pressure to stack the metrics in one’s favor. Institutions of higher education look for larger applicant pools than ever before. Correspondingly, students are applying to more schools than ever. And in response to that, colleges defer “overqualified” applicants who they believe are likely to enroll elsewhere in order to protect their yield rates. I don’t doubt Dartmouth participates to some degree in this numbers game, and I don’t pretend that there is any hope of that changing. I am more concerned with the policies that control what goes on in the College.

Any policy driven by a desire to game rankings will be fundamentally flawed. Consider the College’s loss of “R1” research status, a classification put together by the Carnegie Classifications for Institutions of Higher Education. We are now the only Ivy League school without the specific requirements that earn an R1 classification for “highest research activity.” That statement, that we stand alone in this perceived loss, should be more than enough to make anyone affiliated with Dartmouth concerned. But to give too much weight to this loss would also be a mistake. To make significant actions because of it would be insane. The undergraduate focus, with a very small graduate program, is one of the distinguishing features of Dartmouth. Research is undoubtedly important, but for a small college in the woods of New Hampshire, research classifications hold little weight. On the other hand, there are some metrics which, while probably flawed, we should care about. We rank second in undergraduate teaching, according to U.S. News and World Report, an excellent reflection of our focus. If that took a catastrophic tumble, we may want to begin to consider some changes.

Otherwise, college policy should be driven by a fundamental set of values. Dartmouth’s purpose will always be to provide the best possible, well-rounded, undergraduate education. This might sound like every college’s title slide in their admissions presentation, but Dartmouth fundamentally differs from most national universities, who are beholden to regularly producing research, sports wins and flashy admission materials. We are small and flexible. We can adapt to rising interest in tech and entrepreneurship, but while staying tied to our liberal arts roots. Every move we make should be grounded in what we do best. And that is not what any other Ivy, university, or college does. It is Dartmouth’s own unique brand which produces an incredibly close alumni network, a free and vibrant social and intellectual life and students who aren’t just well-equipped — but interesting. This is just a depiction of my idealized Dartmouth, and others have their own description. But no one’s favorite thing about Dartmouth will ever be that we rank well.