The Tier-Ing of College, and the Damage Done

“If you want to go to a top-tier school…;” It’s a “lower-tier school, but good…” In conversations about college, you often hear rankings-focused comments.


It’s difficult to remember the time before college tiers. I never heard the term in my college deliberations in the early 1980s.  We did talk about safety schools, and the Ivy League, but this terrace farming of the higher education landscape into tiers of quality played no part.

A Google nGram search for the phrase “top-tier college” reveals that it was non-existent, as in, never used, in 1982. In 1983, it first appears as a statistically miniscule glimmer. Then its usage skyrockets, all through the 1990s.

You have to hand it to U.S. News & World Report, which published its first “Best Colleges and Universities” rankings in, you guessed it, 1983.

Whether or not you agree with its methods, it singlehandedly changed the conversation about admissions. It’s almost impossible today in college-aspiring, middle-class, or affluent communities to talk about colleges without mentioning rankings which are derived, sometimes distantly, from U.S. News’ list.

Their rankings are perhaps the most influential example of a kind of manic sociological taxonomy. Victorians were obsessed with the sorting and classification of all the elements of the natural world. We apply the same zeal to lifestyle. Rankings lists abound, of the “best” places to live, vacation, get a good night’s sleep, be rich, be poor, suffer a train derailment, or go to college.

It’s not clear to me, even after years of seeing the college rankings, what constitutes a “tier.”

For its part, U.S. News uses the term “tiers” but basically includes the vast majority of schools it ranks in each sub-category as in one tier, and the lower 25% as a second (keep in mind that fine schools that don’t use the SAT fall into the purgatorial tier of the “Unranked”). Ambitious, competitive parents demand a much finer taxonomy, of course, and parse the rankings more minutely.  

Shall we call the very “top tier” the top 10 schools in each major category? If we define a tier this way—and I often hear ambitious parents implicitly define it thus, in the sense that nothing less than an Ivy or an uber-elite college will satisfy parental vanity—then three colleges (Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore) are perennially in the top tier. They’re the top three schools of 2014. On the university side, the perennial top tier include Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. What variety you see is typically just a re-shuffling of these three.

But why not expand the top tier to include—how many others? 20? 30? To many, it would seem improvident to expand your top tier much beyond 30, or it loses its tier-ness. When do we enter into the realm of the lower-tier schools that are still competitive but not the “best”? Who knows. For all the exactitude that a list promises, it spawns judgments that are imprecise but ironclad.

If I were inclined to define the top tier, I’d probably do just as well to define it by going to a sperm bank and seeing which college men produce the most coveted, expensive sperm. Or, by looking at which college’s donated eggs draw top dollar from infertile couples in the personals ads.

Or, I could define the top tier as those schools included in the pretentious “Ivy League Dating Service.”

I agree with U.S. News that college is an important decision, and an expensive one.

When I applied to college, pre U.S. News, two published sources helped me. First, the glossy packets that colleges sent to prospective students. In these brochures, it was always a bright autumn day, and everyone was smiling, lively, and appropriately diverse. These packets were obviously self-promotional, but the material was so extensive that by sheer volume alone, there were many opportunities for the curious, attuned applicant to find a “tell,” some unguarded moment in which the soul of the college revealed itself.

Maybe the tell would be what they chose to feature photographically—more sports, or more drama performances? Or, the words they chose most frequently to describe themselves. I applied to (and attended) Swarthmore for several reasons, but a substantial one was a student-authored poem in their brochure. It was quirky, intense, highly descriptive, and featured students jazzed up about papers and ideas. Although I hadn’t realized it before, that poem captured just what I was looking for in a college.

These materials created a richer forensic scene to pore over for clues as to whether this school would be a good fit.

The second resource that I dog-eared was a book produced by the Yale Daily News, a guide to colleges, as reported out from students. I loved that book. It provided basic information about the percentage of applicants accepted, and their average SAT scores, but it was mostly a book of generous, thoughtful, honest narratives about each college, and its pros and cons as reported by students themselves. It was like the college tour that you wish you could have taken—unexpurgated, but fair. The Yale Daily News felt no compunction to rank the colleges.

U.S. News’ list, in contrast, places colleges firmly in the camp of other major “consumer purchases.” It’s “one of the most important investments” in life. There’s been attention lately to how colleges have become like spas, and how students consume a college education. U.S. News’ logic, subtly, is of the same gist. “When consumers purchase are car or a computer,” they analogize, they have access to data about quality, and should have the same data for college. “From picking a school to buying a car, our rankings help make hard decisions easier.” It's basically the same process, they posit.

But what does a college more closely resemble?  A car, which is inert, stable, and fully-formed, or a community, which is interactive, and transformed by your presence, like an organism? I’d say a college is more like an organism, or community. The quality and nature of the college—the “product”—changes according to the humans who constitute it. And in this sense, it can support no objective indicia to indicate best-ness, because the product in which you are “investing,” unlike a washing machine, changes from consumer to consumer and, indeed, is changed itself by the consumer formerly known as a student.

True, you can collect graduation rates and other statistics that have probative value. But don’t use these objective, factual indicia to declare the subjective status of “the best.” Just use them to create an “Index of Vital and Helpful Statistics on Colleges”—if you must...and I wish you wouldn’t. 

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk's high-speed test tunnel will give free rides on Dec. 11

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less

Cancer researcher says keto is not a fad diet

Anatomy and physiology professor David Harper claims a recent study in The Lancet is flawed.

Photo: Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • The low-carbohydrate group in a recent Lancet study were typically middle-aged, obese, sedentary, diabetic smokers.
  • The study was not a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment.
  • Harper has been in ketosis for six years, and says it has profound effects on cancer patients, among other chronic ailments.
Keep reading Show less