by Sarah Lehr
Some say education is priceless, but that does not stop colleges from putting a price tag on it.
Kenyon’s tuition will be $61,000 beginning next semester. Given a national trend of tuition hikes, many parents seek assurance that their money will be well-spent. In theory, rankings are one way to hold colleges accountable for the services they provide. Some, however, question the merits of such rankings, particularly those published by U.S. News and World Report.
More than a Number
Diane Anci, formerly the dean of admissions at Mount Holyoke College, will take the reins as Kenyon’s dean of admissions beginning next semester. “If you are thousands of miles away from an institution, and you are trying to imagine U.S. higher education and its options, I get that rankings would be a convenient start,” Anci said. “But ultimately, I think fit … is much more important.”
President Sean Decatur cautioned against the U.S. News rankings. “At some point, there should be a statistics manual that comes with the U.S. News ranking explaining that the difference between number one in the U.S. News and number 10 in the U.S. News is actually statistically insignificant,” he said.
Currently, Kenyon ranks 30th on U.S. News’ list of the top national liberal arts colleges. Williams is number one, Oberlin ranks 23rd and Denison ranks 51st.
The U.S. News website details some of the criteria behind its rankings and qualifies their value, stating, “The host of intangibles that makes up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points.” Past scrutiny of the U.S. News rankings criticized their focus on a school’s incoming class, rather than on how an institution changes students. In recent years, U.S. News has shifted to give greater weight to what happens after a student enrolls.
Currently, the U.S. News ranking gives “student selectivity” (as determined by test scores and class rank of incoming students, among other factors) a 12.5 percent weight. Retention, as determined by the portion of students who return for sophomore year and by the students who graduate within six years, now counts for 22.5 percent. Faculty resources, measured partly by class size and salaries, contribute to 20 percent.
Since SAT and ACT scores tend to be correlated with income, emphasizing test scores may disadvantage low-income students and the schools that admit them. “Research has shown that preference goes to those who can pay for tutoring and things like that,” Kenyon’s Interim Dean of Admissions Darryl Uy said.
In response to potential class biases, some schools, such as American University and Sarah Lawrence College, have become “test-optional,” which means that students do not have to submit test scores to apply. U.S. News bases its selectivity figure on such scores, leading some to charge U.S. News with penalizing test-optional institutions. “To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. News and World Report is not a ranking that’s concerning itself with how well institutions are providing access,” Anci said.
Other publications have responded with rankings meant to prioritize accessibility. Washington Monthly releases a “bang for the buck” college ranking and states an aim to reward colleges that generate social mobility. Among liberal arts colleges, Washington Monthly rates Kenyon at number 66. Bryn Mawr is number one, Oberlin is number 10 and Denison is number 62.
Some praise Washington Monthly for giving weight to graduate fulfillment rather than to salaries. Currently, Forbes relies on data from payscale.com in determining its college ranking, which some see as delegitimizing alumni who work for organizations like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Kenyon comes in 42nd on Forbes’s list of “America’s Top Colleges.” Williams is number one, Oberlin is number 43 and Denison is number 95. Given that women on average earn less than men, payscale.com’s data may hurt women’s colleges.
A Matter of Incentives
The top 10-ranked colleges and universities, according to U.S. News, tend to have one thing in common — endowments close to a billion dollars. By comparison, Kenyon’s endowment stands at just over $200 million.
U.S. News favors colleges that can spend more, as measured by figures such as average spending per student. Kevin Carey, the director of education policy at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, said in a New York Times article: “If you figure out how to do the same service for less money, your U.S. News ranking will go down.”
For most colleges, spending to look good in rankings necessarily means cutting spending somewhere else.
“There are some institutions that take U.S. News very, very seriously and have organized themselves in administrative ways to enhance the ranking,” Anci said. “It seems to me that you ought to be deploying scarce [resources] first in the service of the greater good and if that happens to improve your ranking, terrific.”