Every year, sources such as U.S. News & World Report and Forbes publish lists of the best colleges in the country, and every year Wesleyan’s ranking goes either up or down. Regardless of these annual fluctuations, however, Wesleyan has been consistently receiving over 10,000 applications each year—this year with a 4.5 percent increase in regular decision applications and a 12 percent increase in early decision applications.
Although some students claim to have taken Wesleyan’s ranking into consideration when applying, there appears to be no precise correlation between these two trends. Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Nancy Meislahn explained that in the past, rankings played a much more significant role in the application process than they do now.
“Ten or 12 years ago, occasionally a family would say that they had been looking at U.S. News or some such source, and ask a question specifically about the school’s ranking,” Meislahn said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. I wonder if it’s because there is a greater understanding of the difficulty of capturing an institution—and all that it can be for any student—in a single number or rank.”
There’s also the question of whether these rankings are even accurate, or whether their reliance on questionable criteria invalidates them.
“We don’t pay a lot of attention to these rankings, because they’re bogus,” President Michael Roth said. “They’re based on inappropriate criteria, or sometimes it’s unclear if they’re using criteria consistently. You move up in the rankings when you spend more money or have more endowment per student. I think that’s not a good thing. Wesleyan has to do more with less money, and U.S. News punishes schools that are more productive or more efficient.”
Senior Associate Dean of Admission Gregory Pyke explained that for these very reasons, the University decided several years ago not to advertise the school’s ratings.
“A group of liberal arts college presidents signed a letter saying that they would not utilize the results of rankings in any of their public relations and admissions publications,” Pyke said. “That is because we subscribe entirely to President Roth’s idea that feeding into what is a poor measure of something very complex doesn’t serve the public and the colleges well.”
That said, some students inevitably consider a college’s ranking during the application process. Chiara Wabl ’16, one such student, was ultimately choosing between Wesleyan and Whitman College; she admits that Wesleyan’s prestige was always in the back of her mind as she made her decision.
“I like to think that I was looking for the school that I’d be happiest at and not necessarily depend on what other people thought of the college,” Wabl said. “Subconsciously, however, I did know all along that Wesleyan’s ranking [was higher] than Whitman’s.”
James Hall ’15 also felt that Wesleyan’s high ranking was one factor that attracted him to the school.
“Even though rankings are to some extent arbitrary and distorted, they did tell me that if I went to Wesleyan, I would be getting a quality education,” Hall said.
Though at least some students will inevitably hold schools’ rankings in the back of their minds as they make their decisions, it seems that most Wesleyan students made their final decisions based on more substantial criteria.
“What was most important to me was what the school had to offer—the social culture of the campus, the location, and overall whether or not I thought it was a good fit for me,” said Lauren Nadler ’14.
Hall was also more interested in what he saw on tours and what he drew from sources other than straight statistics, such as personal accounts from students. Similarly, Wabl, who is thinking of becoming pre-med, chose Wesleyan because of the research opportunities it offers in the sciences.
Though the rankings themselves might be insignificant in the long run, the details they provide sometimes offer useful information. Roth conceded that he does pay attention to the criteria used in the rankings; for example, a few years ago, he noticed that U.S. News wrote that Wesleyan had a low percentage of small classes.
“We started something called the Small Class Initiative,” Roth said. “We raised a million dollars over four years to add classes taught by mostly Wesleyan faculty, but in addition to their regular teaching load. We added dozens and dozens of classes every semester.”
Roth admitted that while the rankings may be arbitrary, they do sometimes indicate areas for improvement, even if those improvements may have been made regardless.
“We’re moving towards 70 percent of classes of under 20 [students],” Roth said. “So I hate to admit it, but U.S. News played a positive role. I was less concerned with moving up than I was with, ‘Well, we should have more small classes.’ And now we do.”