News Flash, Pomona: We’re #1—And That’s a Good Thing

Pomona College was ranked #1 in Forbes magazine’s 2015 Best Colleges List, a fact that the college had proudly stated on its recently-renovated website since the ranking came out this past July. Earlier today, however, Pomona removed its Forbes ranking from the school’s official website in response to a petition that made the rounds on Facebook starting yesterday. The petition, signed by 58 of Pomona’s approximately 1,600 students, expressed concerns about the “harmful effects of college rankings” on students applying to colleges.

The statement reads, “Pressure to attend highly ranked schools can result in stress, anxiety, and unhealthy competition among students at a time when we are most in need of support, trust, and objective information.”

There are several problems with this rhetoric. First of all, most students applying to college begin their search by perusing US News and World Report, Forbes, Business Insider and other college rankings lists to get a sense for the schools that are realistic options for them given their academic credentials. Only then do they review schools’ own websites. Even though Pomona removed its ranking from its website, the ranking is still easily accessible on Forbes’ website where students and their parents are likely to see it.

Further, removing the ranking from Pomona’s website will not change the pressure students feel to attend highly ranked colleges. As long as these rankings exist, students will feel compelled to try to attend a highly ranked college, as these colleges (especially those on Forbes’ list) promise a higher return on students’ college investment. Given the ever rising cost of a four-year education, this is important for all students, particularly those from low-income families or those who are paying for college without parental assistance. 

Additionally, the petition’s concerns about a lack of objective information are completely unfounded. Forbes’ rankings are based almost entirely on objective criteria: graduation rates, retention rates, graduates’ salaries, and average federal student loan debt load, for example. The only subjective data Forbes uses is student evaluations from RateMyProfessor, which constitute just 7.5% of a school’s ranking.

The petition goes on to state, “We encourage Pomona College to instead emphasize the many qualities which make it great and beloved–its community and relationships, small and rigorous classes, commitment to access, and student research and leadership opportunities. These qualities tell the story of our college far better than a single number.”

Oddly enough, these criteria are all entirely subjective. Nearly every US college brags on its website about its “community and relationships,” “rigorous classes,” and “leadership opportunities.” If these were the only criteria that schools presented to their prospective students, it would be impossible to distinguish any two colleges from one another. Forbes—and other similar rankings—use objective data to compare drastically different schools and give students the best opportunity to make a decision based on the qualities that are most important to them.

Students who don’t care about rankings—presumably the same students who signed the petition—should not care either way about how the rankings are publicized. After all, they certainly don’t take them into consideration when choosing which school to attend. But for some students—and, more importantly, for many employers—rankings are very important. The unfortunate truth is that despite Pomona’s strong academics and high ranking, it still is not a very well known school. There is a strong possibility that potential employers will not have heard of Pomona and will need to look it up when Pomona grads apply for jobs. The first hit an employer who googles Pomona College will see is Pomona’s official website. If pomona.edu lists the Forbes ranking right from the get-go, it guarantees that employers will know that Pomona is a well-respected college.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this debacle is the statement that it makes. Pomona’s removal of its ranking from the website is simply a statement that the school does not feel comfortable embracing its own success. Whether students are willing to admit it or not, college is competitive. Students compete to attend the best schools, schools compete to matriculate the best students, and employers compete to recruit graduates from the best colleges. In a competitive environment, not everyone can be a winner. Pomona should take pride in the fact that a major publication considers it to be the best college in America rather than giving in to the concerns of a handful of students who are worried that our objective success will negatively affect our vibrant and diverse community. There is no harm that can come of leaving the ranking online, but real harm could be done to Pomona graduates by failing to post the ranking. It is the responsibility of the college to do everything in its power to help its students succeed, and by removing the ranking from its website, Pomona has failed in that responsibility.

At Pomona, our culture assumes that anyone with a complaint has a legitimate grievance. This is simply not true, and it will be to the detriment of the school if we continue to allow anything that bothers even the tiniest fraction of our student body to be banned.

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Photography by Wes Edwards.

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