There's a lot of controversy lately about the US News' annual College Rankings--are they trustworthy? Can colleges really be boiled down to a series of categories and evaluated and weighed to determine overall quality? Isn't the most important factor in finding a college making sure it's a good fit for that individual, regardless of what anyone else can say?
Well, yes, sorta, and yes. And I'll tackle those issues in reverse order.
The most important factor is definitely fit. And that can't necessarily be determined even by endless visits, let alone college rankings. Things change. It's college. The whole point is not to be spat out the same person you went in. For some, they change early and they need to transfer to somewhere that fits them better. For others, it's a longer process of development, of shaping and being shaped by all things they are exposed to at their college home. I was lucky enough to be part of the latter.
Davidson was definitely, without a doubt, the perfect place for me. That doesn't mean I liked it at all times, by any stretch. But I know I do best when I'm pushed really really hard--harder than I want to be pushed at times. I learn best when I'm given a challenge I've never seen before and very little context or instruction. Davidson gave me the best of both of those things. The arguably most important thing I learned from college was that no matter how smart I thought I was or how good I thought I was at something, there was always someone better; but the only way to get better is to emulate those people. Sure, it was frustrating--grade deflation, trying to earn respect from a walk-on spot on the golf team, balancing sports, social life and school work--but ultimately I think it taught me more (though not necessarily in the classroom--I know I learned far more from people and about life in general than anything that can be taught) than anywhere else could have.
What you take away from college can't be written in a textbook. Nor a rankings list, for that matter. But those ranking systems are there for the people who care about such things. 99.9% of the time, if you go to State School X-City Branch Y, you inherently care less about where some people rate your school--it has what you want, be it a certain major, or a sports team, or a certain social lifestyle. I mean, from how many people do you hear, "Man, I hated college. It was the most miserable time of my life." And for the one person you run into in a lifetime who might say that, you have to respond "Why on earth did you fork over a fortune to go, then? And why didn't you transfer?"
For those people who do care about rankings, I don't think there's any disputing that the rankings are relatively accurate. Obviously they aren't perfect determinations of who should go where--for that we'd all have to be judged on some life scale a whole lot deeper than the SAT--but they do good research and generally report facts. As I mentioned earlier, it's up to the student and his or her family to determine whether or not to care about those facts. People don't always bother to follow the rankings (my roommate is much smarter than me on paper, yet goes to the 67th ranked university vs my 9th ranked college). The reviewers also don't bother to even try to rank, say, liberal arts schools on the same scale as large universities--they're so inherently different that it's rare for people to look at both.
All in all, college comes down to who you are and what you care about. To some, that's arbitrary rankings of what reviewers deem worthwhile statistics about schools. To others, it's any number of things. That doesn't mean the rankings are any more right or wrong than football rankings. It's merely a measure of certain priorities that many people share. In football, it's winning against other highly ranked teams. In colleges, it's high test scores, solid retention, and alumni giving. In both, there are other factors that enter into preference. In football, it's your home team or alma mater. In colleges, it's social life, location, cost, programs, and so on. Despite sharing it with so many others, college is the most personal experience one can go through--and no exterior rankings can affect that.