Once the groove of a new school year starts to finally set in — when freshmen look like they know where they’re going and seniors feel like they don’t — the campus is also greeted with the true signifier of another spin around the academic calendar: the release of U.S. News and World Report’s Best College Rankings.
The merit, accuracy and basic relevance of these rankings have long been contested — perhaps even to the point of irrelevance. Maybe they matter; maybe they don’t. More interesting, however, is the increasing influence of hierarchical rankings on the minds of prospective students: UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that, in 2016, 63 percent of college freshmen in the U.S. ranked the importance of a school’s reputation as “high” in their college decision.
For those privileged enough to have agency in selecting colleges, the craving for an external signal of status concerning one’s choice can appear a prerequisite. (Harvard’s famed “Z-List,” a deferred admission list that requires students take a gap year and that largely favors legacies with pre-college records lower than most admitted students, shows that the mythos surrounding an institution’s prestige is as valuable as the prestige itself.)
For USC, however, the notion that reputation will largely impact students’ college selection throws an existential wrench into our current operations. This year, USC had a record-low admission rate with 13 percent and its highest matriculation rate with a 4 percent increase — and, arguably, the most scandal-ridden year in University history. Should students continue to rely heavily on a school’s reputation in their college selection, the logical trend in USC admissions would be downward, with fewer applicants.
While the incoming class of 2018 made their decisions before USC’s scandal-filled summer, they’ll be the last class to do so. In the future, students will be locked into an ethical bind that might not be commonly shared with their counterparts. The next cohort of students may feel tasked with transforming themselves into the 35 percent who do not rank reputation as “very important” in their college choice, in order to justify acceptance of a school so clearly rocked by scandal.
The disparity between USC’s public image and its increasingly selective admissions process logically forces one to contemplate the accuracy of national rankings — of “reputation” — and whether or not they matter at all. But it also begs us to ask a question more commonly posed by freshmen who just read Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time, if anything matters.
Should students continue to flock to USC, the cynics might say “no.” But to be this cynical would require tremendous ignorance. To say that incoming students “choose” an institution is an immensely privileged claim. Many incoming college students — in years past and in years to come — may find reputation very important, but still lack the resources to attend the reputable school they dream of. Therefore, students lucky enough to attend USC, with its 13 percent admission rate, No. 22 spot on 2019 U.S. News Best College Rankings and ethical shortcomings, should not be blamed for what, in many ways, may be a decision outside of their grasp.
Instead, like national movements around us, we must hold those with power accountable and empower those without it so that they can properly function within the same system. It is in everyone’s best interest to continue to attract and retain the dedicated student body that USC has long cultivated. To do so, we have to examine the power imbalance between the students who choose our school and the systems that run it.
If USC can be the poster child for anything this year, it’s likely for the argument that what one does, so long as one is powerful and wealthy, will bear no relation to one’s status. Consequently, if potential students continue to apply in the droves that have characterized recent years, we should not accuse them of complacency. Rather, USC must keep itself in check. While a number of watchdogs kept USC accountable by reporting on multiple scandals last year — namely, the Los Angeles Times — the future responsibility for such action now falls entirely on the administration’s lap.
When those who abuse power are exposed, it’s possible for them to emerge relatively unscathed — whether with a stand-up set or a Supreme Court nomination. Power has this ability. And, it seems, USC does too. Now, to set the record straight, USC must use its power responsibly.