What Is the Best College in America?

When I see preachy posts about college admissions -- SECRETS OF A COLLEGE ADMISSIONS OFFICER REVEALED! -- 13 COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SECRETS THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW -- HOW TO GET ADMISSIONS OFFICERS TO SAY "YES" -- 6 SECRET TIPS TO GET INTO YOUR DREAM SCHOOL -- I tend to feel vaguely angry, and yet here I am to offer another. Though, to be fair, this one is unlike those mentioned. It's something else, and it's something important to me.

It's about the way we talk about colleges. It's about contrived hierarchies. It's about distractions. It's about AMERICA'S TOP COLLEGES and WHY FORBES REMOVED FOUR SCHOOLS FROM ITS AMERICA'S BEST COLLEGE RANKINGS. It's about excellence.

Because we seem to have forgotten that excellence -- in schools, in people, in general -- isn't linear. Not in any capacity. Not for a second. These rankings pretend that excellence is quantifiable -- it's not -- and that we all value the same things -- we don't. In its 2013 rankings, for example, Forbes values "Student Satisfaction" at 22.5 percent, "Post-Graduate Success" at 37.5 percent, "Student Debt" at 17.5 percent, "Graduation Rate" at 11.25 percent, and "Nationally Competitive Awards" at 11.25 percent. I, on the other hand, am not so sure.

When we contrive hierarchies -- BIG SURPRISES IN FORBES 'TOP 300 COLLEGES' LIST -- based on what other people decided were the appropriate weights of appropriate factors (which are largely subjective) we complicate things for us, the students, the applicants, the people who are already sufficiently anxious about everything else. We make a difficult process more difficult, more distracting, more political, by instilling mindless opinions in our parents and grandparents and neighbors and friends ("That's a great school," "Why in the world would she choose this school over that one?"). We breed judges that recognize little beyond the rankings.

When we pretend that colleges don't exist individually, as intricate, self-contained entities, as different kinds of excellent, as places where people meet people and help people and collaborate with people and change people and become people, but as five vaguely quantitative factors, as "better" or "worse," we are kidding ourselves. More, we're crippling ourselves. We make the admissions process more painful than it needs to be. We're forcing order, as we tend to, to disguise the chaos. And this process is chaos. Don't ignore it. Embrace it. When we cheat the process we cheat ourselves. We look past the schools that might be right for us ("I've never even heard of that school") while we can praise those that might be right only for the "methodology," the science, of Forbes Magazine.

And this process isn't science; it's visceral. It's different for all of us. With time and research and contemplation our own personal hierarchies reveal themselves. But not as permanent things. Not as "National University Rankings." Not as "America's Top Colleges." When our own hierarchies develop, they develop for ourselves only, and they're ephemeral. They're personal, and they evolve.

So calling Vassar College -- Forbes's 27th top college, a private school of 2,386 students in Poughkeepsie, New York -- a better college than the U.S. Naval Academy -- Forbes's 28th top college -- is analogous to calling realism a better philosophy than idealism. They're not better or worse -- they're different. They're right for different people. They're right at different times. They're huge, elaborate, nebulous things that are to be compared but not ranked. And, anyway, why should I or any other applicant care what Forbes -- "Information for the World's Business Leaders" -- thinks about colleges, or anything, really? It's a magazine with loud, profitable headlines. And I'm a teenager who wants to become a whole human being.

To contribute to a culture in which someone can be applauded purely for attending one of "The Schools That Matter Most" while another might be deemed somehow "less," by extension, for attending College No. 131 seems downright cruel. Finding the school that matters most to me is plenty difficult, even ignoring the distraction of rankings. I shouldn't care about the rankings. My grandma shouldn't care. My family friend across the dinner table shouldn't care. The rankings shouldn't matter at all.

But they do. And they're irresistible because we have an insatiable desire to know everything. To get the facts. To create order. So we search, we ask around, we browse and browse and browse.

And then, after extensive research, and after extensive conversation, and after extensive introspection, what do we find?

The Best College in America does not exist. It's a myth. It would be too easy. Sure, it might be Stanford, as Forbes insists, but Forbes is only guessing. Consider the primary sources -- then ask yourself, not Forbes. Forbes doesn't know the best college for you. Google doesn't know. U.S. News & World Report (is that even a real thing?) doesn't know. When you come across posts with titles like this one, remember that you're a person, and that I'm a different person, and that the answer lies only with you. And, yes, I do realize that that makes the process hard, and complicated, and maybe even annoying. But it also makes it interesting. When we do it thoroughly, we emerge knowing ourselves better. And, anyway, we're all doing this together -- we're all lost in chaos together at the same time -- so feel free to message me if you need to talk. Because I sure do.

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