US News College Rankings recently released its annual list and has come under fire for dropping Columbia from 2 to 18 after some controversy over Columbia’s misreporting of class sizes… at least, it’s come under fire from a lot of Columbia officials and proponents. It’s difficult to take their complaint seriously. After all, after being exposed by their own Professor, Michael Thaddeus, for underreporting its class size, Columbia’s solution was to decline to submit those numbers to US News this year, arguably an admission of guilt, or at least of fault. The administration has since had an institutional tantrum, suggesting that we should devalue the list itself as a measure of quality, which is a bit like a crocodile calling its own teeth too sharp for civilized company. The objection essentially runs that the list measures reputation and not the quality of the institution, which is, at least in part, quite true and obvious to begin with. Columbia’s reputation was a good part of the reason it was at number 2 last year.

After all, if we take a step back, what exactly do we seek when we attempt to compare institutions of higher learning using quantitative metrics? The true value of the educational experience there is the altruistic headlining reason, but the sneaky, sordid truth is that there is a real value to a degree from Columbia that comes simply from its reputation and has nothing at all to do with the educational experience. Ignoring that as part of the value of a college is to assess the handsomeness of a face while pretending it doesn’t have a nose or cheeks. The metrics of class size, faculty salary, and graduate indebtedness included in the rankings are actually all objective measures of the latter category rather than the former. Having a faculty salary of 100,000 says something only minimally linked to the actual value of its educational offering. The final 20% of the US News College ranking is even said to be determined by fellow provosts, deans of admission, presidents, and other ranking officials. That sounds an awful lot like the way they used to determine prom king and queen! Don’t forget, Mr. Provost, you can’t vote for yourself!

When one steps back and looks at it, it seems very obvious that the rankings are reputationally based, and the more they struggle not to be, the more they are. We have to zoom out entirely if we’re going to be able to see if it’s even possible to measure the true value of an education. The first fundamental problem is that if we remove the element of reputation, the parameters of value are going to get even more subjective. Afterall, what is the true value of education if we set practical matters aside? There are dozens of answers we could supply, and none would be wrong. How effectively you’re prepared for the workforce, how much knowledge you actually learn and retain, the skills you acquire, how many people you meet. All are arguably the right answer based on an individual’s motivation for going to begin with, which isn’t a universal at all.

But foregoing those realities, I would argue that if we set aside prestige altogether, the true value of a college experience is the degree which it steers a student’s life in a positive direction. In other words, if one were to attend that college, how likely is it that they would have an experience that would substantially impact the rest of their lives for the better. It is by no means an objective definition, nor can a social value judgement be to begin with (though sociologists try like heck to produce that anyway). But it is one that most would likely agree with, the closest to consensus possible. If we do accept that as a definition, then the question becomes what most directly impacts an individual attending college? I would argue that it is the people that attend the school with you and the professors that you encounter.

To extrapolate, I’ll explore my own experience at Kenyon. When I attended in fall of 1998, I was absolutely convinced I would be a brain surgeon. I recall receiving a model of a human skeleton about the size of a barbie doll on a red stand displayed in a plastic case, and a laminated map of the human brain labeled by parts for my tenth birthday, one that I loved to stare at in awe. I had taken AP Bio, and it was my favorite class (mostly because I liked dissecting things and the teacher was pretty cool). So when I signed up for freshman classes at college, I selected all the pre-med slate: Bio, math, sciences, etc. And then… and then… I met Professor William Klein. The gangster of all gang-star professors.

I was taking a History of the English Language class with him, one of the diversity requirements needed for Pre-med, not for any particular reason. I actually hadn’t signed up for it myself but tagged along with a few of my friends for giggles, and got him to sign a “drop/add form” after class in order to register me. I could sleep in as it was in the afternoon, and it wasn’t one of those god-awful three-hour evening seminars that made my eyeballs bleed red-veined horror.

He wasn’t much to look at, weathered face of about 60, a bald head, thick glasses and a distant but steady gaze that made it seem like his focus was both far off and entirely present simultaneously. When he spoke about literature, his tone was like a librarian reading a story to 5 year-olds, a fascination with the topic that seemed so plain and obvious to him, like he urgently needed to share it with you while also being in no rush at all. A soft tenor that was at once calming and mesmerizing. I could have listened for hours, just for the fascination of its soothing vibrations, quiet like a peaceful lake.

He assigned a creative paper early that fall, a modernization of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which caught me a bit off-guard, given that 95% of my English work in high school had been of the analytic variety. I was fully expecting a boring essay on Hemingway or James Joyce. After listening to him lecture on the epic, I was lit up. The assignment was meant to be 3-4 pages, mine turned into 12. I gave that paper a piece of my young soul, spent weeks on it, working fervently every night, eschewing parties, sports, meals…. When I submitted it, he extolled it mercilessly, said it was “worthy of publication.” I never forgot that, will never forget it. “I can do this,” I thought. I hadn’t thought I could; I wasn’t sure I could do much of anything before that moment, not much at all. It changed everything for me, the course of my life. Who knows where I would be without that man, maybe slaving over a career I didn’t care for in a lab or perhaps licking the wounds of a med school drop-out, it’s impossible to say. That is the value of college education, that experience, that change in trajectory. It’s worth a thousand libraries.

But does class size or professor salary dictate the breadth and depth of true inspirational life refraction? If anything there is a tangential relationship, but difficult to argue a causal one. Hard to reduce the inflection point of my life into a series of statistics that will meaningfully measure and weigh my experience against that of a student at college x, or worse, that of a generic student experience y who is yet a hypothetical.

For college is ultimately about two simultaneously operating parallel forces that are both distinct and paradoxically indistinguishable: that which involves the power of the degree that one wishes to obtain from Harvard or Colgate or Northern Illinois University, and also something that can only be labeled as “twists of fate”. We must at least recognize that these streams are true and unavoidable, but while one is measurable, or at least subject to consensus, the other is ineffable. If we chase it, we are the cat chasing the laser pointer. Yes, US News gives you reputational value, which is nothing to spit at. I got more jobs by using the Dartmouth trademark than all of my other job experience or personal connections combined. Let’s stop pretending it gives us that something else.

I learned in writing this article that Professor Klein died last spring. I’m not going to lie, it brought out tears thinking how little I’d done for him when he did so much for me. I even desperately searched for a place to send some token of post-mortem appreciation. But it was brief reverie– shockingly quick. I suppose on a subconscious level, it quickly occurred to me that this type of gift is not meant to last– that this power to steer a human exists on an ineffable plane not subject to quantification or ranking. To suggest otherwise is to suggest a spider’s web is not made of gossamer. On the other hand, to suggest I won’t check this list closely when my own daughter applies to college would be equally inauthentic. The actual inked rankings lie somewhere in the valley between.