The Matter of Rankings
In late summer and early fall, a phenomenon occurs in higher education — one that causes great interest, occasional joy, and, often, great consternation among college administrators. In the early part of the academic year, as students are returning to campuses, college and university rankings are published by U.S. News & World Report (USN&WR), Money magazine, and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), whose rankings are produced together with the Times of London. Countless other lists are produced that offer rankings on how green one’s campus is, how nice the libraries are, and how happy the students feel. Colleges celebrate upward movements in the rankings and eschew rankings altogether if they slip.
But, of course, it can’t actually be the case that the rankings matter only if they present good news. The rankings matter. They matter because they affect applications, the quality of student enrollment, and the general perception of the institution. If students still make decisions about where to apply and to attend, even in part, due to the rankings, they surely must matter. They also matter because they affect alumni spirits. Who doesn’t like to see their college leap a few spots up in the rankings?
For years, many colleges and universities dismissed the rankings for being arbitrary, too focused on endowment, too easily manipulated. And you could ask: Are they measuring the right things? Recent ranking changes make me think, more than in the past, they are.
In September, both the USN&WR and WSJ rankings were released. Colgate’s current position is 20th in USN&WR rankings and 50th in the WSJ list. Among private liberal arts colleges, WSJ ranks Colgate 12th.
The shift in our USN&WR ranking from 17 to 20 was both surprising and disappointing. In almost every category that the magazine uses to determine the overall ranking — whether it be in measures of student quality, available faculty resources, or alumni giving — Colgate showed strong results. In several categories, Colgate showed increases from prior years’ rankings. Indeed, our overall ranking number (USN&WR assigns colleges and universities an absolute score) also went up.
Our USN&WR ranking went down this year largely because a number of colleges showed stronger results in a new set of measurements that are of increasing importance to the magazine’s algorithm. (Our ranking was also hurt by the fact that two of the service academies — the Naval Academy and Army-West Point — suddenly moved into the top 15 ranked liberal arts colleges.) When USN&WR first developed its rankings more than 30 years ago, results were driven almost exclusively by the “beauty pageant” measurement. This was a ranking of the perceived quality of the college based solely on the subjective votes of hundreds of college presidents, provosts, and deans. After several years, this variable declined in importance — though it still represents 20% of the overall score.
Rising in importance for several years, starting in the 1990s, were admissions statistics. The rankings were driven increasingly by the number of applications a school received, the admissions rate of the college, and the standardized testing scores of enrolled students. These were the years in which you could see a number of institutions vigorously seeking to increase applications and doing all they could to boost test scores of both applicants and enrollees.
We appear to be entering a new phase of USN&WR rankings, one increasingly concerned with the number of financially aided students enrolled (particularly the number of students eligible for the greatest level of federal support, Pell Grants), the graduation rate of these students compared to the unaided population, and the relative amount of resources expended by the institution. Overall institutional resources (endowment) remain important, as does the perceived quality of the faculty. And, again, overall perceived quality of the college remains important.
USN&WR Ranking Factors
|Publication Ranking Year||2018||2019||2020||2021|
|Graduation and retention rates||30%||35%||30%||30%|
|Pell recipient graduation rate||–||–||5%||5%|
The WSJ ranking was released Sept. 17. This ranking has some overlapping factors with USN&WR (outcomes and resources), some different factors (student engagement and institutional environment), and ignored factors (student excellence and alumni giving). Figure 2 is a summary of its methodology.
Colgate’s performance in student engagement is consistent with student survey results when asked to make a holistic judgment of their college choice and specific questions about the perceived value of their college education.
It would be easy to discuss the USN&WR rankings and celebrate the WSJ rankings. But I think it’s wiser for the University to reflect upon the fact that two of the most important ranking entities seem increasingly focused on how wide the composition of our student body and how well they fare at Colgate both in graduation rates and in outcomes. These seem to be important statistics to measure and important points on which to focus our time and attention.
This year, Colgate is launching an initiative to support all first-generation students. We also have joined with the QuestBridge partnership to help us identify a large number of applicants who normally would not consider Colgate. And recent enhancements in our financial aid support — including our no-loan initiative — will help bring to Colgate more students who otherwise would have found the price tag too formidable. Finally, the initiatives in our Third-Century Plan are designed to enrich life on the campus and bring more students into the world prepared for the complexities they will face.
The rankings have come out again, and we received some good news as well as some news that has caused some concern. Given the new emphasis regarding rankings on matters that are legitimately important, I think they are excellent fodder for Colgate to consider and address. We will be stronger for it.
(Percent of Total Score)
(Percent of Total Score)
|Outcomes (40%)||Value added to graduate salary (12%) |
Graduation rate (11%)
Academic reputation (10%)
Debt after graduation (7%)
|Resources (30%)||Finance per student (11%)|
Faculty per student (11%)
Research papers per faculty (8%)
|Engagement (20%)||Student engagement (7%)|
Student recommendation (6%)
Interaction with teachers and students (4%)
Number of accredited programs (3%)
|Environment (10%)||Student diversity (3%)|
Staff diversity (3%)
Proportion of international students (2%)
Student inclusion (2%)