Changes to U.S. News & World Report ranking not indicative of the College’s standing

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Five months ago, the 2019 undergraduate rankings by U.S. News & World Report were released, and extensive news coverage documented significant changes in the rankings of many schools. Media coverage of the changes stressed that a shift in the U.S. News’s “methodology” away from that used in 2018 as the cause of these ranking changes. In articles from The Flat Hat to the Daily Press to WM News, the College of William and Mary was strongly affected by these changes, with a reported “drop” from 32nd to 38th in the overall rankings.

A petition harshly criticizing the Board of Visitors for the drop. I believe these articles were misguided in their analytical assumptions and general conclusions. In this brief response, I wish to explain that if you wish to take the U.S. News rankings seriously, then the Board of Visitors, if anything, deserves applause, and they deserve great credit in particular for their appointment of College President Katherine Rowe.

All signs from the information provided by the U.S. News rankings indicate that, because of Board action, the College is in increasingly strong shape. News coverage last fall made the mistake of accepting at face value the claim by U.S. News & World Report that their new 2019 ranking reflected a “change in methodology.”

The talk about the resulting “shifts” and “drops” of various colleges in the rankings was, to be frank, just U.S. News manipulating perceptions in a way that helps them sell magazines. What they did to change the rankings of universities is important, but it’s not quite what they present it as, and the resulting confusion created a good deal of needless angst, not least at the College.

To be clear, what changed in the new rankings was the list of criteria used to rank universities. Very roughly, U.S. News introduced a new element into the mix of considerations that, in their view, should determine how we judge the excellence of a university: the number of Pell Grant recipients it graduates.

To make room for this new element, the criteria of retention and graduation rates were given a smaller percentage of a university’s overall score (again, the reality was a bit more complicated, but that’s close enough).

What did not change was the methodology. It remained the same. The methodology is arithmetic. The 2019 report is a new ranking. Nothing fell. The College was 32nd in the old ranking. It is 38th in the new ranking — different criteria, different rankings and no travel between them. What are the implications of this different ranking for how we evaluate the Board? Let’s examine more closely the two rankings.

Recall that the second includes the number of Pell Grant recipients. The first doesn’t. If you go back to 2005, former College President Gene Nichol said, “We’ve got to increase the number of Pell Grant recipients.” He established the Gateway Program. The number of Pell Grant recipients increased 20% in two years. Then Nichol was forced out, in part for introducing the Gateway Program. Former College President Taylor Reveley gutted that program after Nichol’s tenure, and Pell Grant numbers collapsed. They have increased in recent years but remain low.

How would the College rank if Nichol had continued his Gateway program uninterrupted? I have looked at the numbers going back in time, and because of some missing data, I had to borrow a few from The New York Times College Index that reports a Pell share. Thus, the extrapolation I am about to report, which stretches forward a decade, must be considered only approximate. But it shows that the estimate of where the College would be in the new rankings looks to be right around 32nd. We can say at the very least that the College would be a few steps above 38th; there is no doubt about that.

These results suggest that, if Nichol had been allowed to continue in office with his Gateway program, the College might well have made the transition from the old rankings to the new ones without fanfare.

Thus, in a sense, there was a ranking drop, but not the one reported in the press. It was the one the College suffered in the counterfactual rankings we could construct for our own purposes if we took the new U.S. News & World Report criteria with us back to 2005 for a journey through our history.

The drop we have experienced is the lower trajectory the College took after 2008, when Reveley took over, in comparison to the prestige the university would have maintained had Nichol and his policies been adequately defended that year.

If there has been a drop in quality, it is the one we suffered from having Reveley’s policies replace Nichol’s over a 10-year period. Our counterfactual comparison reminds us to look for the causes of the College’s problems in its people and its policies, past and present. It was Reveley’s decision to gut the Gateway Program after 2008, as a matter of policy, that has put the College in a place where we now find ourselves, wishing perhaps that we had not departed so sharply from the path Nichol put us on.

If the concern is that we are 38th in the new ranking because of a Pell Grant deficit and that we would like to get back to 32nd by making up that deficit, we might look at what the Board is planning to do to boost Pell Grant recipients at the College. It turns out they have already acted and in a decisive way.

The selection of Rowe by the Board of Visitors last February suggests that the Board of Visitors understands that people and policies matter to the College’s future, especially when it comes to the office of the president.

Thus, if an observer’s concern is narrowly with U.S. News rankings, and the issue is that the College has a lower standing in the new rankings relative to the old one, let it be known that the Board ran and completed a presidential search to address the “rankings drop” seven months before it even appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Which, it appears, the Board does not even need to read.

Email David Dessler at dadessler@gmail.com.