Arms Race: Exploiting the College Ranking System

For high school students looking forward to attending college in their near future, the first step of the process is determining which college to attend. There are several colleges in the United States, which offer students various options on which one they should attend. It is common for students to have the desire to attend a college that is ranked best among other colleges in the nation. However, how are these colleges ranked against one another?

According to Cathy O’Neil’s work, “Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD),” one of the threats that WMDs present is their scalability. She addresses this issue in Chapter 3 by bringing up the college ranking system that US News uses. According to US News, a college’s ranking is defined by a particular set of statistical data, such as SAT scores, acceptance rates, and the percentage of alumni that contribute money to the college.

This ranking system was made public through the US News website. With the statistics being accessible to the public, some colleges that were disappointed with their ranking started to game the statistics they scored upon. Some colleges abused the system and turned in false statistics to US News to further increase their ranking, and those who remain truthful were left at the bottom of the ranks. The growing number of viewers of US News’ ranking system motivated its scalability even further by establishing a “golden” standard for colleges. Colleges continued to enhance their statistics by increasing their acceptance requirements for incoming students, making students work harder to get into high-ranking colleges. Now the students are affected by the WMD; some of the students were driven to cheat on their academics to meet college admission requirements.

Overall, the college ranking system does not only affect college; it also affects students and businesses. WMDs rely on mathematical models consisting of numbers, and these numbers can be easily manipulated, as seen in the college ranking system. In the previous chapters, transparency was one of the WMDs’ problems, leading us to think that a good WMD must be transparent. However, in this chapter, the college ranking system is transparent, which gives colleges the information they need on which statistical data determines their ranking. By knowing this information, some colleges abused it by manipulating their data to rank higher. The scalability of a “golden” standard in a diverse world is problematic because by establishing a “golden” standard, the world will lose a part of its diversity in pursuit of the “golden” standard.

Undergraduate majoring in Computer Science and Minoring in Mathematics