We needn’t the rankings. We’re making experience

Claire Jeantheau ’21, Guest Writer

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Some of my favorite advice comes from a fortune cookie message, which I coincidentally opened after an awful exam. It read, “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.”  I’ve kept that paper to this day, and it was the first thing I thought of when I received the email a few weeks ago that Dickinson had fallen in the U.S. News rankings for liberal arts colleges.

The email was filled with signs of concern, reading of “very disappointing” results and “improvements necessary.” Instead of being upset, though, I was calm. Before you pass me off as a naive first-year, I realize that college rankings are viewed widely from parents to students to educators, and can contribute greatly to perceptions of a school. But I’d also like to share my perspective as a recent high school graduate who’s been greatly affected by focusing too much on those aforementioned “standards.”

For my junior and senior years of high school, I was in an intense academic program called International Baccalaureate. At times of peak stress, when my classmates and I didn’t know how to process twenty page essays or the looming reality of college applications, we turned to what we could all understand: rankings. Who got the highest score on the SAT? Who had the top class rank? Who did the best on the Chemistry test? At one particularly stressful point of junior year, one girl recited the exact percentage of all her grades from memory, digit for digit. At some point, it stopped being about friendly competition, let alone learning; instead, it became a virulent obsession with numbers, and who had the “best” ones.

One of the reasons why I chose Dickinson was because it separated itself from that attitude, focusing more on what students could learn rather than how they’d be ranked. So far, my experience hasn’t disappointed, in part from factors that didn’t make it in the US News list. I’ve started learning how to inspect a beehive, fix a bike, and operate a planetarium; where’s the ranking for experiential learning? What about a rank for the number of things I long to know more about after each class? (It would be high.)

Like my favorite advice, it seems that there are many standards to choose from in evaluating a college, and none of them are comprehensive. President Ensign has already pointed out the ways the US News ranking slants toward wealthier schools; a Politico article linked to in the email points out that there is no measure for the economic diversity of the student body. Furthermore, Dickinson has recently earned a number of honors, including the Order of the Torch Award from Alpha Delta Lambda for having one of the U.S.’s top first-year honor societies, along with a Top 5 ranking on The Princeton Review’s list of green colleges. To me, these say much more about the kind of school Dickinson is and the things it’s accomplished.

Much was said at my orientation about the importance of freedom to learning, especially at a liberal arts college. I recognize that rankings hold significance, and I know that Dickinson’s administration is working to make sure they reflect the school’s quality. But I think that for me as a Dickinsonian, part of that freedom will be the ability to set a hyper-fixation on rankings aside and simply learn.

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