UVA Student Responds To Rankings

Mike Greenwald is a student at the University of Virginia and former Editor in Chief of the Daily Cavalier. Respond at [email protected]

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If I only had read one review of "Showgirls" before I saw it in the theater during my senior year of high school, I would have saved myself two hours of sheer disappointment and $7. The critics were correct - I should have just stayed home and rented "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Not surprisingly, uninformed decision-makers often make poor decisions. And when the decision involves something as expensive as college, these poor decisions can prove quite costly.

In the same manner as movie reviews, collegiate rankings can be one of several useful tools in helping high school students make informed choices concerning where they will spend both their next four years and many thousands of dollars.

Bickering about the methods used by U.S. News and World Report in their annual and increasingly controversial rankings of the nations' colleges and universities misses the point ("UC Berkeley, UVA Share Top Ranking," Sept. 1). The fairness of the complicated ranking formula is almost irrelevant. The point is not whether the No. 18 school is somehow "better" than the No. 19 institution. Rather, the rankings are an instrument used to gauge the subjective concepts of prestige and stature. Simply put, they give people a strong, and often sole, impression of a particular university.

The release of the latest U.S. News rankings generated significant national media play, ensuring that many Americans will have seen the Top 50 list, either in U.S. News itself or reprinted in some other publication. For people who live outside of the Commonwealth, the Top 50 list very well may be the only non-football-related piece of information they read all year about a university.

University of Virginia's standing in the U.S. News rankings molds public perception of the university. The quantity and quality of applicants hinges on it.

So does the value of a university degree. In short, reputation does matter. Being named the No. 1 public institution and the 20th best overall is what separates us from any state university in the court of public opinion.

Just last year, when the UVa. slipped to No. 2 among public schools, applicant numbers dropped by 16 percent. Is that merely a coincidence, or, more likely, is there just nothing to draw the nation's top students to a less prestigious UVa.?

The rankings also are meaningful to current students and alumni. Other than the simple reason of school spirit and pride, a prestigious university offers tangible benefits to its clientele.

All colleges were not created equally. A degree from Harvard is seen to be worth more than a degree from Appalachian State. Image may not be everything, but it's close.

Along those lines, when shopping for a college, it is important to know which schools have which reputations, and which consequently offer the most bang for the buck. The rankings provide this information.

But the U.S. News rankings are not only important by virtue of their wide circulation and impression-formation ability. The numbers do mean something; it is no coincidence that the most revered schools in the nation - Princeton, Harvard and Yale universities are all ranked in the top three.

The numbers tell us something else as well. They point out shortcomings. Does a school have an unusually low graduation rate or substandard SAT scores among its freshmen? In the case of public schools, do they receive a comparatively small percentage of their budget from the government? The rankings will provide these answers and allow for comparison to other institutions because all schools are judged on the same criteria and the same formula.

While the rankings do offer a tangible measuring stick of the public's perception of a particular university, they certainly are not an end in themselves. UVa. and UC Berkeley may be tied in the U.S. News rankings, but that does not make them the same school, equal in all regards. College unquestionably is much more than numbers, statistics and equations.

In the case of UVa., the intangibles and little quirks, not the numbers, are what make it great. The notion of student self-governance, the high standards we set for ourselves, the Jeffersonian architecture, the secret societies and the traditions set us apart. But our national reputation and stature is what draws people to Charlottesville in the first place, long before they ever know what a Gusburger is and what Rugby Road has to offer.

Rankings help high school students avoid choosing the "Showgirls" of colleges. As for me, that meant selecting UVa. and discovering one universal truth - whether it's the University of California or Elizabeth, nothing "Berkeley" can ever be as good as anything "Virginia."


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