Rankings vs Reality: the Numerical Value of a College Education

Three years ago, I chose to attend Tufts over other schools such as the University of Michigan or University of Southern California due to its prestigious reputation and commitment to quality education. When I was applying to colleges, I knew I wanted to attend a smaller university outside of California, where I had grown up. I aimed to experience a different location and culture, while receiving a top-tier education. Despite being accepted by my state schools and other larger out-of-state institutions, I ultimately decided on Tufts after touring and discussing it with my parents. However, it’s hard not to question whether I made the right decision. This year’s annual US News Report on college rankings revealed that Tufts dropped from the 32nd to the 40th position among the best colleges in the nation. This ranking falls behind several universities including University of California Santa Barbara, University of California Irvine, University of California San Diego, Boston College, and University of Wisconsin. The recent ranking shift has prompted me to wonder whether attending an out-of-state school is worth the considerable extra expense, or if I should have chosen an in-state school after all. 

It’s hard not to have the gut reaction that this ranking indicates a decline in the quality of our education at Tufts. While one can thrive in a college with a lower ranking, students here have dedicated a lot of effort and financial resources to attend this school, hoping for a worthwhile return on our investment. However, despite this initial reaction, it is vital to remember choosing a college should be based on much more than rankings, and these rankings cannot begin to encapsulate an entire college experience. Students will be investing the next four years of their life living, learning, and growing at an institution, so the decision must be far more deliberate than merely following a numerical ranking. Ideally, a change in ranking should lead neither incoming students nor current students to doubt their choice of college.

This doesn’t mean that the Tufts administration should discredit the shift in ranking as meaningless. The 2024 US News rankings were based on adjustments to the calculation that emphasize inclusivity and accessibility factors. This drop should serve as a crucial wake-up call for the school to assess areas that need improvement. The aspects that led Tufts to decline in ranking have more to do with economic accessibility than academic quality; the quality of a Tufts education remains similar to previous years and still holds a respectable reputation. Therefore, while students shouldn’t let this ranking drop discredit their personal accomplishments, the administration needs to seriously reflect on ways it can improve accessibility for all students.

Tufts’ ranking over the past decade has consistently been in the high 20s or low 30s. This drop to 40th marks a striking difference from previous years and is attributed largely to adjustments made by the US News report in the way it assesses colleges. Alumni donations, proportion of students receiving government loans, high school standing, terminal degree faculty, and class size were removed from the calculation, while more weight was placed on factors such as the number of graduates receiving a Pell Grant, amount of debt, the proportion of first-generation graduates, and the post-graduation earnings of college graduates in comparison to high school graduates.

These changes reflect a shift in focus by US News toward inclusivity and accessibility as important criteria for assessing the value of a college education. It’s true that Tufts’ decline may point to a disparity in this criteria—the institutions that surpassed Tufts in the rankings are primarily state schools, which likely had an advantage in the new ranking system by being more accessible for in-state students due to their substantially lower in-state tuition costs. However, state schools are not a universally more accessible alternative, especially for students like me who wanted to leave their home state for college. For instance, while the University of Michigan is comparatively affordable for in-state students, for whom the tuition is $35,450, it may not be affordable for out-of-state students who pay a tuition of $76,294. So how can a student really tell if the rankings indicate that a school is accessible for everyone?

Even so, Tufts is bound to struggle in this new ranking system, given its tendency to admit students from affluent backgrounds and lack of need-blind admission policies. Historically, Tufts has one of the highest proportions of wealthy students among colleges. The school enrolls more students from the top one percent of the income bracket than the whole bottom 60 percent, and it gives less than half of its student population financial aid—40 percent in 2022. Tufts is less inclusive across socioeconomic classes than it should be, indicating a need for improvement. Considering that rankings are starting to emphasize accessibility, Tufts’ current management of admissions is leading them on a path towards consistent decline. If Tufts values a higher ranking, it is essential that the school takes the initiative to improve the admissions process, allowing people across a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds equal opportunity to be admitted to the university. 

Having said all this, as a student looking for a high quality education, I remain confident in my decision to attend Tufts. Unlike many other larger institutions, Tufts offers intimate class sizes of 20 students or fewer, providing the personalized learning environment I sought. Additionally, I tend to be shy and struggle to step out of my comfort zone; in a smaller school setting like Tufts, I’ve found it easier to connect with others, enabling me to explore new activities such as Burlesque, the Observer, and yoga class. Experiencing a more personalized education has allowed me to form friendships with some of my professors, such as my creative writing professor, Joe Hurka. These are just a few of the experiences that can’t be captured by college rankings. A number can’t capture the variety of classes, the range of clubs, and the relationships built. A ranking only reflects a mechanical perception of what counts as a top university. What it doesn’t consider is how you, as a unique individual with your own personality and interests, will fit into the university and what opportunities will truly excite you.

In conversations with other students, it is evident that many of them are also unaffected by the university’s ranking, believing it has not diminished the quality of their educational experience. Junior Kabir Pamnani said, “Tufts’ ranking dropping doesn’t bother me at all, because for me, I base my judgment of the quality of education on my own experiences. I am getting a great education with great professors, and I feel I am given the opportunities that any top school in the world is given, and so I don’t focus on rankings.” While rankings may influence the perceptions of individuals who haven’t attended the university or are unfamiliar with it, there are still those who have thoroughly enjoyed their time at Tufts and would vouch for the top-notch education and unique opportunities it provides.

Ultimately, when looking at rankings, it is important to remember that college encompasses more than just learning. It serves as a crucial opportunity for young adults to break away from their familiar environments and develop on their own, offering a safe space for self-exploration and facilitating the discovery of careers to pursue and activities to take part in. The college experience aids in shaping students into the kind of person they aspire to become, and a ranking cannot encapsulate the value of this transitional period that occurs at a school. 

Instead, Tufts students should view this ranking drop as a clear signal that improvements are needed in the school’s accessibility. Tufts’ admission of few students from the bottom 60 percent income bracket is a crucial indication that the institution must enhance its inclusivity efforts. This could potentially come from Tufts implementing need-blind admissions or removing loans from financial aid. These policies would alleviate the stress of student loans, which are one of the leading causes of debt for adults in America post-college. It’s disheartening to see our school’s ranking decline, in part due to the administration’s failure to provide sufficient need-based aid to prospective students. However, students shouldn’t dwell too much on the actual number of Tufts’ rankings. This drop says less about the quality of education and the experiences of current students and more about the university’s incapability to make Tufts an affordable option for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The choice of college, or even the decision to attend college at all, is profoundly personal and cannot be reduced to a mere ranking. Each individual possesses unique characteristics and requirements, and what fits one person may not suit another. While students at Tufts can continue to find fulfillment in their college experiences, the recent decline in the university’s ranking should undeniably be concerning for the administration. This dip in rankings should serve as a compelling call to action for the Tufts administration, urging it to improve accessibility and ensure that our education and opportunities are within reach for a more diverse range of students, irrespective of their socioeconomic backgrounds.