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College rankings and their propensity for enhanced facts

One of the more frustrating things about capital-L Life is the persistent, complete human inability to capture and understand every single detail. More specifically, how every medium seems to fall short in some key way in truthfully portraying all possible details or minutiae of a situation. In writing, for example, the visual world is necessarily imagined; in photography, time is lost, sliced into, butchered, largely disregarded; and in videos, while it maintains many aspects of visual verisimilitude (Wikipedia: “concept that distinguishes between… apparent… truth and falsity of assertions and hypotheses”), there’s no real one hundred percent effective, non-cheesy way to highlight thought, perception, or perspective. And as close as you think you can get to achieving this sort of “ultimate situational truthness,” there are still hosts of detail, minutiae, left forgotten. That is, viewing and analyzing media constantly yields vastly different individual results—context is everything, personally and societally. In other words, meaning and interpretation continuously change for everybody individually, and with that—and on account of our inevitably limited attention spans—we’re only able to focus on a certain set of details/minutiae at a time: the set that’s most pertinent to us at the moment which, again, changes constantly. Viewers are required to pick out and focus exclusively on what they deem the “most important” bits of information that jump out the most. Which, all this, advertisers capitalize on, making an active attempt to corral this selective thinking into very specific ends, to understandably try to get across exactly what they (the advertisers) are trying to get across. Advertisers obviously have a grip on helping audiences zero in on exactly what they (advertisers) want them to.

College marketing seems to work in much the same way. Their (who this is is up to interpretation here) audience/clientele/whatever is fairly homogenous and therefore easy to zero in on: white-knuckled, college-anticipatory, mid-to-late-high-schoolers—and, often, their parents—who jump anxiously at any promotional email, local information session or school visit, etc. While this abject excitement is definitely not universal (or healthy/rational—and is definitely caricatured here), it’s absolutely an effect the College Search Process had on me and my family, as well as countless others in Brookline, Massachusetts and beyond. (One need only look to Reddit or Confidential to see the madding crowds. Which I was definitely still a part of, to clarify.)

Colleges, in their advertising, seem to intuitively understand the power of said information-nuggets. Unlike the pursuit of verisimilitude (defined, mentioned earlier), 21st-century collegiate thirst-trapping seems to be more an attempt to deliberately reverse-engineer that whole idea:
Image and truth, in this case, seem to work directly against one another—or, really, with one another, against the student. This is true from college website promotional photos to information sessions (because when would either of those ever mention any of the downsides of their school?): It’s distracting, it’s lulling and sexy, it’s advertising. Just as the admissions process is more or less a crapshoot, gaming high schoolers into applying to colleges is also just a game of seeing which school can make the bolder superlative claim, frantically and specifically directing attention to the “sexiest” parts of the school.

Of course, none of this is remarkable. It isn’t supposed to be, right? None of this very skillful persuasion is meant to raise any eyebrows because it isn’t meant to tease out any tough questions: It’s this very well-deserved yet fabricated feeling of, OK, I’ve made it through high school and earned my way here, now I get to decide between a ton of great schools that would love to take me. But in doing that, and coasting off all that encouragement, the college-oriented critical lens becomes a bit more rosy and sort of, very effectively and deliberately, can preclude you from making really important distinctions between schools and—of course—potential four-year experiences. Colleges, in their advertising, tend to emphasize this pampering and shift potential applicants’ attention away from thinking long and hard about what a college could offer, and more toward the whole “congrats on finishing high school!”

I mean, how are you supposed to think about how a small town and shitty dorms might affect you if the school’s got X clubs, Y majors, an average class size of Z, and the students are all quirky and modest? Junior and senior years of high school are so very much a slog (academically, family-wise, and so much more) that one’s mental and emotional energy are so quickly used up and spread thin that it’s absolutely impossible, again, to imagine all these details. And that’s where schools get you in their advertising: They know exactly how crazy things are and exactly how little time you or anybody else has to think about anything more meaningful or visceral or real than very easily digestible data (obviously this makes sense, given the whole automatic internal comparison that goes on there, adjusting it to what fits your preferences in the Search).

Obviously the ethics of all this depends on what you think of advertising in general, but it seems pretty agreeable that, yeah, essentially commercializing college experiences is kind of messed up and misleading.

But the general frustration of it all amplifies when college rankings come into the mix. Trying relentlessly to loop students into giving higher education institutions money and their souls for four years—under the impression you will be living the experience they want instead of imagining your own—is one thing, but compare/contrasting them is another issue entirely. I mean, on the surface, it’s just ludicrous. Again, without doing the whole >/< data thing, there’s just no real good way of reasonably comparing these completely different and subjective experiences. As before, everything is infinitely analyzable, with context morphing constantly as time goes on, with different experiences, memories, etc. And given people’s limited attention spans, college rankings obscure things further. It’s so easy to boil experiences down to numbers, >/<, categorize things digestibly. The rankings are effective, for sure—a dopaminergic, weirdly-shallow sense of validation that sorts things into this very unrealistic sense-making way—but at the end of the day, college rankings obscure what college advertisements did not already. The numbers, like those statistics, discrete bits of information, are more easily memorizeable and comparable than all those other subjective details.

And it’s probably important to mention here the elephant in the room: that this is all second-hand. How are we supposed to know Niche, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, etc., are not just being bribed by these colleges? But then where do we even get information like this? Reddit and College Confidential—and other admissions-focused communities—aren’t exactly impartial places to get information, and current students aren’t really, either, given that, as before, no two experiences are the same.

But college rankings also bring on the secondary, perhaps selfish issue of self-doubt that comes naturally. Sure, it’s easy to ignore the whole college rankings craze and write it off as everything said above, but the fervor is inescapable, regardless of how ridiculous and competitive schools are acting here. The judgments and fear of them aren’t new—the rankings are just a weirdly blunt form of holier-than-thou-ism people of all ages seem to love to throw away for what reason I really can’t say.

Carleton seems to “try” to avoid the whole ranking thing (according to Wikipedia, it’s a part of the “Annapolis Group,” an organization of American liberal arts colleges that has “encouraged members not to publicize ranking surveys”). This is nice, but it seems that on every single pamphlet the school sends out, they mention their “#1 Undergraduate Teaching” U.S.N.W.R. ranking—so it’s the thought that counts, I guess. At least people are sort of thinking about it. But obviously that doesn’t change anything.

And there’s no real easy way to figure this all out, try to fix this craze. Maybe it will never end. It might just be some sort of fundamental human urge to compare or show off or etc. But this all seems to be directly the result of a grander attempt by colleges (and ranking publications) to sort of manipulate a system of perpetual communication errors to appeal to this fundamental human desire to do “the best” or go to “the best” and be “the best,” which makes a lot of sense.

But, in the end, does it have to be this way?

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