The deceit of American universities

Recently, I made the decision to commit to the University of Pittsburgh. On paper, the school checked all of my boxes: it has a large STEM focus, a network of university-owned hospitals for pre-health professionals, bustling city life and a price tag that came out to about half of some of the other schools I was accepted to. However, with many of my friends committed to schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke, at which the very mention of these schools seems to send people’s jaws to the floor, I can’t help but find myself questioning my decision time and time again.

As pointed out by the eye-opening Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions, which highlights the lengths that some of America’s richest will go to get their children into elite colleges, “prestige” is nothing more than a French translation of a word meaning “deceit.”

 Though this is enough to debunk the value of the ranking system, year after year, students resort to the infamous U.S. News & World Report national university rankings site to craft their list of schools to apply to and discover their “dream” school, motivating colleges and universities to do whatever they can to climb to the top of that list.

According to a 2014 article featured in Boston Magazine, former President of Northeastern University Richard Freeland viewed the U.S. News & World Report rankings as a means in which to save his struggling university. During his time at the school, Freeland was able to “break the code” of the ranking system and employ tactics such as reducing class sizes and increasing application accessibility for the sole purpose of increasing selectivity, all tactics which ended up moving Northeastern up 42 spots in the rankings. 

Northeastern is not the only university that has utilized this strategy; other notable colleges such as Baylor University and Emory University have made similar attempts to game the ranking system in order to attract more competitive applicants to their schools.

Despite these financially motivated attempts that could only be described as deceitful, both parents and students still correlate higher rankings and perceived levels of prestige with greater success in the future. While it is true that many larger, big-name schools do have a wider breadth of resources and can boost the resumes of disadvantaged students seeking upward mobility, attending the college ranked #16 in the U.S. News & World Report list puts you at no greater advantage than a person who attends a school ranked #98. 

In fact, according to, a study found that regardless of which college they attended, the incomes of any two students with similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds would not be affected by the “elite” status, or lack thereof, of the college they attended.

Whether it be a so-called “Top 20” institution or the state school 20 minutes down the road, students can get a top-tier education at almost any of the thousands of colleges in the United States. As was true in my case, a university deemed as a student’s “safety school” may end up being the place where they can see themselves finding the most happiness and success. 

For the sake of the future generations of students to come, we must stop idolizing others for getting into selective colleges, as the only reason they are so selective is that applicants are more prestige-hungry than ever. 

We must stop equating a school with intelligence, because even the smartest person in your class may have had valid reasons to choose a public school over an Ivy League school. We must stop allowing universities to deceive students, as it only leaves students feeling inadequate and leaves the schools swimming in application money.