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Duking it out over college rankings

U.S News & World Report released its annual list of the so called “Best Colleges” in the country last Monday night, and since then, the results have been circulating across campus. Much to the surprise of current Blue Devils and Alumni alike, the new 2018 rankings placed Duke at 9th best in the national universities category, one spot lower than last year’s score of 8th. News of an unfavorable move within the data set widely considered to be the bible of college matchup, has inevitably disappointed many students, as evidenced by the many memes related to the topic featured on the Duke memes page. To see the university seemingly devalued overnight obviously has disheartened many within the Gothic Wonderland. It is important, however, to step back and consider the underlying reasons behind why such an arbitrary college ranking system seems to matter so much to certain members of the Duke community.

Historically, Duke has occupied a wide range of positions within the U.S News & World Report rankings, placing as high as third in 1997 and as low as tenth in 2009. Despite such fluctuations, Duke has remained in the top ten for the last twenty years—something that administrators have continued to reiterate and take pride in whenever the rankings are released. To see a comparatively young university like Duke grouped with the likes of Harvard, Columbia and other ivy league schools with much longer histories and reputations, seems to reinforce the idea that we represent the gifted Southern upstarts to the established Northeastern collegiate elite.

Indeed, Duke’s epithet, oft-repeated by high school guidance counselors across the nation, suggests a paradoxical regionalism in comparison to other top national universities within the college rankings. As the so called “Harvard of the South,” Duke is often caricatured as the pinnacle of higher education within the South, a region that has historically and contemporarily been falsely characterized as lagging behind the institutions of the northern states. Duke, especially as a university that strives to be a global one in the 21st century, is also an institution that has always aimed for more national ambitions ever since its founding in 1924. Perhaps evoking our insecurity as a provincial newcomer, we aspire popular approval—in this case an arbitrary college ranking—as validation of our newly gained prestige in the national arena.

Moreover, our obsession with the annual U.S News & World Report rankings often discounts other, equally valid college rankings that utilize completely different methodologies. For instance, Forbes Magazine ranked Duke eighth, utilizing a methodology that factored in post-graduate income. The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education ranking placed Duke at seventh, above the University of Chicago and Princeton, with a methodology that included an “environmental score.” All college rankings measure the quality of higher educations by placing different weights on a variety of factors; to consider one ranking system—i.e the U.S News  & World Report—as the most “valid” system of ranking colleges is misguided.

Nonetheless, such rankings can be important tools in measuring the quality of important, diverse factors, both academic and nonacademic, when divorced from the perspective of pure prestige. We can look to such rankings to identify areas of the Duke experience we can improve on, such as improving socioeconomic diversity or lessening the student debt load. Finally, students should feel proud and grateful to be here at Duke regardless of the fluctuations in ranking. Not many students get to experience the opportunity to be educated at a multifaceted place like Duke, and to fuss over the school’s reputation within an arbitrary college ranking system is both foolish and unnecessary.


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