Column | Sept. 26

What being #1 really means

I had just gotten back from the Street, clothes crusted in heaven-knows-what, when my mother calls me from Korea at 4 a.m. It took me a moment to figure out exactly what she was saying; it was a mixture of hyperventilation and uncharacteristic squealing, and my interpretation was not particularly enhanced by my own state of consciousness. The fact that my mother never gets excited and looks like she’s calling the Secret Service even when she’s ordering pizza made this a particularly bizarre experience. Had I not known any better, I would’ve guessed she’d won the lottery; in reality, she’d just seen this year’s U.S. News and World Report list of top U.S. colleges.

Let me pause here and disclaim that my mother is neither overly obsessive nor a “big mother” figure who knows more about what goes on in Princeton than I do. She also rarely fixates on admissions statistics or grades, so you can understand my surprise at her enthusiasm. However, after hanging up the phone, I began to realize just how significant Princeton’s “new” ranking was from the perspective of international students, and just how big of a push this could be for Princeton’s global prestige.

To begin, it’s important to recognize the differences in cultural perceptions of tertiary education, especially for international students who have parents who have never attended college in the United States. Many countries forego the “holistic” qualitative admissions process found in the United States in favor of strictly quantitative admissions, which many deem more egalitarian. The Chinese, for example, claim that having admissions based off of standardized testing alone allows for students of all backgrounds and talents to attend the university of their choice. While most Americans would balk at such a sentiment, it’s one I understand and could argue for, despite my personal convictions against it.

The degree to which rankings are even desired shows a huge cultural gap between the international mindset and the more domestic one. Many East Asian public schools have been known to publish ranks of students based on their grade point averages and test scores as a means of encouraging hard work and competition. Quantitative criteria are favored over qualitative, and any widely acknowledged resource like U.S. News and World Report will be clung to without a second thought.

There is also the issue of rankings being the only gauge of what many of these universities are like for certain applicants. While I was fortunate enough to have a mother who attended an American university, there are many other international students whose parents have little knowledge of what American college is “suitable” for their child. Personal accounts of friends and alumni are limited, especially in areas where only a few leave to study abroad and fewer return to share their experiences, making virtual college profiles the main source of information.

So what does it mean to the world that Princeton’s monopolizing #1 (and not Harvard)? Princeton’s international prestige is starting to skyrocket in circles that formerly overlooked it. It seems all too familiar that I would return to Seoul and have people know about all the UCs but have never heard of Princeton. A big reason for this is our lack of professional graduate schools, making it difficult for those with undergraduate degrees from other countries to study at Princeton. Furthermore, despite the relatively high percentage of international students here on campus, the absolute sum is quite small, and the number returning to their home countries to spread word of Princeton even more negligible.

However, with the release of U.S. News’s college rankings, this has already begun to change. The “shock” of Harvard being pushed down the list has triggered a series of reports not only spreading the news, but also raising awareness about the institution as a whole. Korea’s three main television broadcast stations KBS, SBS, and MBC held extended programs focusing specifically on Princeton’s research institutions, and even hinted at the rise of a liberal arts education, a radical change in tune from Korea’s usual emphasis on STEM fields. Just today, I ran into a large group of Korean students who had come from Jeolla Province, a district not known for sending students abroad, and especially not to Ivy League institutions. When I asked them how they had gotten to know about Princeton, they grinned and pulled out their Galaxy phones to show me a translation of the U.S. News college rankings.

I could go on forever about various responses I got from my friends abroad after this year’s rankings were released, including a highly questionable email from a Jordanian friend I hadn’t heard from in over two years. Point being, while college rankings are always more a source of amusement for us than anything else, they have larger international implications for those who have limited opportunity to gauge for themselves what Princeton is like. So in a sense, being #1 isn’t just a Hurrah Hurrah in the Crimson’s face, but an opening of doors for the rest of the world to get to know us a little bit better.

Ye Eun Charlotte Chun is a sophomore from Seoul, South Korea. She can be reached at ychun@princeton.edu.

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