What Decides a College’s Prestige?

Willa Wang, Contributing Writer

A month ago, US News & World Report (US News) magazine published the rank of universities and liberal arts colleges for 2022. This is a “transcript” of last year for all these schools. Some universities and colleges received higher rankings; some fell to lower rankings. Numerous reasons account for these changes. The US News started to publish rankings in 1983. It uses a qualitative method to measure how “good” a school is, and after 37 years, their rankings have become more than a number. 

When US News started to publish rankings in 1983, the rank was completely dependent on the college’s prestige. In French, prestige means something that people can not sense. It is imaginary and an illusion, but people believe it. That is why some work so hard to get their children into elite universities, even resorting to illegal methods. Nowhere was this more clear than in the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, when Rick Singer helped a lot of kids from prestigious families get into top universities by pretending to be athletes. US News would ask colleges to do peer evaluations and ask the public to share their opinions on “good colleges.” Through this process, a school or a famous company that had nothing to do with college education would rank universities and colleges nationwide from 1 to 100, and their rankings were totally based on impression. 

However, in 2021, eight factors decide the US News colleges rank of 2020-2021: graduation and retention rates (22%), social mobility (5%), graduation rate performance (8%), undergraduate academic reputation (20%), student selectivity for the fall 2020 entering class(7%), financial resources per student (10%), average alumni giving rate (3%), and graduate indebtedness (5%). It no longer depends on how good a school is. How has the ranking system changed over the past decades? 

People who went to college before the 21st century had a vague idea of rank. “When I went to college back in the 1980s, I knew Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc. Everyone knew these schools. I chose Bates because it offered me high financial aid, and I knew Maine better than other states because I was watching a TV show that took place in Maine. Prestige wasn’t what I considered,” Qazi Ahmad ’91 commented. 

Without a doubt, magazines have made some schools more popular, especially after the invention of the internet. Because these colleges became more well-known, more students applied to them. Colleges started to have more applicants and funds from application fees; for students and parents, they have an objective guide to help them to choose the most appropriate college.  At the same time, US News started to earn a reputation that makes them “professional.” 

Ranking in the US is unique. Organizations such as US News are private. They started up as a magazine, and rankings were not initially their specialty. “These private organizations became influential because they are the first group who tried to make a rank. It is interesting that the ranking shows how American society works,” professor Ben Moodie from the sociology department commented. 

The percentage of people who want to receive higher education in the US used to be in a “plateaued” shape, so the US wanted to expand its university system. However, it was hard for the public education system to undertake this expanding task because states’ finance also needed to pay for Medicaid and infrastructure, so it made room for profit-education and private institutions. 

“This dynamic would exist even if there is no ranking system. This problem could be solved if American states start to expand their university system. It would be amazing if Medicaid was federalized, so states can have more revenue to spend on higher education, which would both financially and academically benefit the country,” said Professor Moodie. 

The introduction of the ranking system really intensified this scaling-up. The ranking system is the catalyst. This is how private higher education joined the ranking game.

“Over the last three or four decades, higher education has become increasingly a commodity, something that you purchased, a product. It is a goal of getting in itself, rather than the goal of being educated,” Jon Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer claimed. For colleges themselves,  rankings have become a game. For those universities and colleges that want to improve their rank, they have to be more selective, give harder essay prompts to applicants, admit students whose families are wealthy, etc. They have to follow these rules, or else, they would drop out from the tier. For students who get into schools with higher rank, it is as if they are already half of the way to success. 

Thinking about ourselves, what decides the prestige of Bates? I personally chose Bates because I felt comfortable when I talked to the people at Bates. In short, I liked the vibe at Bates. Unlike prestige, “ardor and devotion” are real sentiments. These qualities about Bates show up in our everyday life, on every faculty and staff’s face, in every corner of the campus, and even in Bates’ squirrels

What decides a college’s prestige? Numbers and ranking can never impact the nature of a school. What we live with every day on campus isn’t about rankings. Instead, we live with people and live with “vibes.” The feeling of being here makes us Bates people.