Grading the College

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September 4, 2009

3:49 AM

Third, fourth, fifth, sixth — go ahead and take your pick. 33rd, 48th — you might not know which should stick. Neither does the College of William and Mary.

The College finds itself in a publicity dilemma after having been named the sixth-best public school in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the best national universities. It is third, fourth and fifth on other, generally less prestigious “best public” lists complied by the Princeton Review, Forbes and Kiplinger.
And while the College places higher in Forbes’s “best public” list than it does in U.S. News’s, in Forbes’s overall list it falls in at no. 48, fifteen behind its overall ranking in U.S. News.

“There is so much to accomplish at the College and so few resources to do it so we don’t spend much time ranking the differing university rankings,” College Spokesman Brian Whitson said in an e-mail. “There are so many — U.S. News, Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Business Week, Princeton Review — and we certainly don’t make any policy or curriculum decisions based on how that might impact one ranking or another.”

Whitson denies that the College, like some universities, directs resources toward improving their ranking. Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Jim Golden, who leads the Office of Economic Development, echoes Whitson.

“We do want to score well so we make sure we do everything within the guidelines of the rankings to submit the most accurate and complete information,” Golden said. “But we don’t make policy, curriculum or budget decisions based on rankings.”

According to Dean of Admissions Henry Broaddus, the effect of rankings systems on student enrollment is negligible.

“Students and parents tend to use U.S. News as a blunt instrument to see whether an institution is in the top tier, but ultimately, they look beyond the finer differences in rankings when it comes to building the right college list for themselves,” Broaddus said.

However, the College does value its high rankings as a publicity device.

“We refer to them all, and any kind of third-party validation of William and Mary’s excellence provides a helpful tailwind for our recruiting effors,” Broaddus added. “That said, we don’t lead with success in rankings as the primary reason for a student to choose William and Mary.”

Even so, rankings of the College receive a fair amount of publicity in promotional materials meant for prospective students.

On its “W&M By the Numbers” webpage, the College lists all of its major rankings, with U.S. News rankings topping the list, followed by Forbes, Princeton Review, Kiplinger and BusinessWeek.

Since the list is neither in alphabetical nor chronological order, the prioritization may be a matter of reputation or methodological value.

“Stateside, there is a recognition that U.S. News is the most highly regarded, but other programs, specifically grad/professional, focus more on rankings such as BusinessWeek,” Associate Provost for Enrollment Earl Granger said in an e-mail.

Whether U.S. News’ priority to Forbes on the list reflects a value judgment of the rankings’ respective methodologies or an expedient public relations move, why the College ranks differently in each list remains a separate question.

*Methodologies*

Generally, college rankings are based on evaluations of an institution’s student body, faculty, alumni, finances and graduation rates.

On the surface, various methodologies share the same criteria, but a closer look reveals differences in weight and approach that explain differences in the College’s latest national rankings.

For instance, U.S. News bases 15 percent of a school’s ranking on the “student selectivity.”

A school’s ranking is determined by weighing each university’s acceptance rate, students’ high school ranking and students’ SAT and ACT scores. Forbes, on the other hand, bases 8.33 percent of its ranking on the number of students who receive nationally competitive awards like Rhodes or Marshall scholarships
while attending the university.

Similarly, 20 percent of the U.S. News ranking is based on “faculty resources,” 35 percent of which is determined by faculty salaries, 15 percent from the percentage of faculty members that hold the highest degree offered in their field, five percent from the percentage of faculty that is full-time, five percent from the student-faculty ratio and 40 percent from class size.

Forbes evaluates faculty and staff of academic institutions differently from U.S. news.

Five percent of its ranking comes from the percentage of faculty who receive “awards for scholarship and creative pursuits,” while 25 percent comes from student evaluations taken from RateMyProfessors.com.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Forbes and U.S. News is that 25 percent of Forbes’s ranking comes from student evaluations while 25 percent of U.S. News comes from the peer assessments of administrators from other universities.

According to Forbes’ “Methodology” webpage, “The academic world is replete with schools trying to maximize spending to improve resource-intensive factors in the U.S. News rankings, something not possible with these rankings.”

U.S. News, whose reputation as a college ranking publisher is better established than Forbes’s, defends its statistics, declaring on its website that it “takes pains to ensure their accuracy.”

Dean of Admissions at George Mason University Andrew Flagel, who penned an article entitled “Exposing the Hypocrisy of the College Rankings System” that appeared on FastWeb.com last week, criticizes U.S. News and Forbes alike.

“U.S. News also offers a bunch of other rankings, including a survey of guidance counselors and some specialty rankings based on the same entirely fair and unbiased survey of presidents, provosts and deans they use for the overall ranking,” Flagel wrote. “Princeton Review and Forbes use student surveys. Of course, students have no bias and are a great source of statistically sound data, and by that I continue to mean the exact opposite.”

Regardless of whether one values peer assessment or pupil assessment, faculty resources or faculty achievement — or none of the above — comparing ranking methodologies serves only to clarify one’s personal values regarding how to judge a College.

The College’s institutional values, as articulated in its mission statement, are left virtually unexamined by any of the major ranking methodologies.

Differences in college rankings can be explained by differences in criteria.
In most cases, the College says that these numerical differences are nominal.

The differences tend to be greater when the College is compared to both public and private schools, rather than just public.

Nevertheless, across public and private lists, best quality and best value, Forbes and U.S. News, the College maintains a fairly high ranking.

If there is then one measure of the College to be extracted from all of the rankings’ methodologies, according to Whitson, it’s consistency.

“We continue to be among the leading universities in the country — no matter the format or methodology or rankings,” Whitson said. “Not everyone can say that.”

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