Despite dubious significance, college rankings still affect admissions

Around this time of year, high school seniors are beginning to narrow down their choices for higher education and begin the lengthy application process. It is also this time of year that the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings are published.

Last week’s release of the 2013 edition reported that the University had remained nearly stagnant in the ranking game — down one spot from 45 to 46 this year in national rankings and an unchanging No. 13 ranking among public universities. Many of these spots are populated by ties.

Nevertheless, the administration’s attitude toward the ranking system seems to be dependent on the ranking: When the University sees a boost in ranking, however small, the attitude seems warm toward the system. Conversely, when the University’s ranking falls, the system is regarded as arbitrary. Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler told The Daily Illini last week that the ranking among public schools is the focus, while one year ago, Kaler commented on the financial standing of the University as having a role in the No. 45 ranking.

In the 2011 edition, the University was ranked at 47, having taken an eight-place tumble from 39 in the 2010 edition. The drop may have been caused by the Category I admissions scandal. After all, the College of Law dropped 12 places in graduate school rankings in April after last fall’s investigation into number manipulation.

The University has become complacent with its place among national institutions in the three years since the mid-40s have become its home.

Though the administration’s memory seems to be short. The University’s top-10 ranking among public schools was a bragging right for years until it fell from that list in 2010. Coincidentally, this was also when the administration used the harshest language against the ranking system.

“The campus doesn’t depend on U.S. News or any other rankings to tell us whether we are serving our students well,” Kaler said in an email in 2010.

Compare that with her warm statement about the rankings last week: “(University officials) are happy to see that (U.S. News) recognized the excellence of the University.”

We concede that the overall ranking of the University may be meaningless in terms of excellence of specific programs or in terms of diversity, as shown in this year’s international enrollment numbers. Those individual programs and initiatives deserve to be recognized because they add to the richness of the University.

However, especially in light of the University’s almost endless stream of rhetoric about upping the excellence of Illinois, we can’t remain comfortable with this stagnation. Regardless of the University’s alternating views on the U.S. News rankings, they are important for high school students’ decision to apply. Any drop in rankings will deter qualified students from applying and attending.

The University has been riding on its highly ranked departments — Engineering, Library Science, and Business, to name a few — for a long time. While they do a great job of attracting the best talent, they alone are not enough to accept our current place.