Random Pleasures

Surprise! Harvard, Princeton, and Yale top the U.S. News university listings again, with Williams atop the liberal arts college list. I’ve suggested for a number of years that the perennial “winners” simply be retired and let the rest duke it out each year (no offense to Duke) so we can get a real contest going.

If we’re stuck with the rankings, let’s make a cage match out of ‘em! Instead of a constant set of characteristics that give rise to virtually identical hierarchies each year, change things up so there’s some real suspense, like there is on the WWF or American Gladiators. Forget all this genteel bickering, or “reputation rankings” filled out more or less at random, let’s get some chairs, boards, barbed wire, and beer and get a real contest going. If you’ve seen Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, you know what I mean. Have colleges clash over stuff that matters: the square footage of their student centers; the pounds of tomatoes served in the dining hall; the average height of the faculty; the most expensive textbooks; the acreage per student. These are all concrete elements that can be objectively measured. For that matter, let’s include the amount of concrete on each campus. Have college presidents batter each other with rolled-up copies of The Chronicle of Higher Education until there’s only one left standing (presumably the one who used the issue with the Almanac tucked inside).

Whether or not people actually use the rankings in any biblical way, the main impulse seems to be to eliminate randomness from the college selection process: If you look at all the factors and set them up rationally, you’ll have the “perfect” match!

This, we know, is totally impossible. Any time college counselors get together, we talk about how we came to our alma maters more or less by accident, not design. We took our tests, sent in some applications, and chose one of the ones that chose us. We seldom did doctorate level research before deciding where to apply; yet we managed to emerge as decent human beings.

I applied to Amherst because my counselor tossed out the name in passing one day. I’d never heard of it but since it was a bus ride from New Jersey I went up and fell in love with it: it looked like what I thought college should look like. And luckily, they accepted me. (Another story.) When an Amherst professor once challenged me about why I had chosen Amherst, I couldn’t say anything that he didn’t counter with a variation of, “But plenty of other schools have good teachers and classes. What makes Amherst unique?” I was annoyed at the time but the exchange has stayed with me because the reality is I could have been just as happy anywhere else.

We fool ourselves if we think we can eliminate randomness from college choice, or, indeed, from many of the choices we make. Today’s Chicago Tribune has a story on how some colleges are trying to use social networking to match up roommates. Students can see their future roomies and make decisions accordingly. But jettisoning randomness can make life duller and bring out our lesser instincts. One girl said she asked for a change when she saw the “shabby” house her prospective roommate lived in. Another college stopped using extensive matching questionnaires because it just led to people’s being more disappointed when things didn’t work out.

So if we’re not going to have collegiate cage matches anytime soon, I suggest taking the rankings and getting some darts. You know where I’m going with that…

A version of this blog entry appears in the NACAC blog Admitted.