There are few things more American than rankings. As a country that prides itself on our competitive culture, we are obsessed with winners and losers. We rank everything from restaurants to TV shows to sports, but nothing seems to get ambitious Americans more excited than school rankings. From public to private, kindergarten to graduate school, if you want to find a ranking of almost any school in America, you can. Attending a school with a high ranking has become more than just a point of school pride. For many people, it’s a symbol that communicates to everyone else that you’re intelligent, accomplished, and are on the path to “success.” I disagree with this outlook, but I also can’t deny that the rankings have an impact. They do, and we cannot delude ourselves by pretending that they don’t.
Last week, the holy bible of college rankings, U.S. News and World Report, published their college rankings for 2021. Once again, Wesleyan has slipped. In terms of national liberal arts colleges, Wesleyan has gone from being ranked 17th last year to being ranked 20th this year. This downward trajectory is a pattern, not a fluke. Much has been written on the subject ever since 2007 when Wesleyan dropped from its coveted position in the top ten liberal arts rankings to 11th place and has since steadily declined. An article written in The Argus from 2008 entitled “University drops in U.S. News & World Report Ranks” detailed how the university fell from 11th place to 13th, and Wesleying published a similar article back in 2009 entitled “Another Year, Another Ranking Fluctuation.” Unfortunately, these articles have aged all too well.
The method U.S. News and World Report uses for ranking colleges and universities is unclear, confusing, and complicated. However, it is worth the time to figure it out in order to judge what the rankings represent. The academic rankings this year were calculated from 17 measures of quality that fell into nine overall categories. These nine categories and the measures that fell under each category are listed below; note: some of the categories also count as one of the 17 measures.
Each of the nine broad categories counts for a different percentage which adds up to 100, where the top performer scores 100 on a zero-to-100 scale. Additionally, U.S. News and World Report does not factor in nonacademic elements like social life and athletics into the rankings, nor does it conduct unreliable straw polls. Instead, it uses academic data and third-party sources to calculate each ranking factor. They then determine each school’s overall rank by grouping schools into ten ranking categories based on academic missions and within each category, sum the weighted, normalized values across the 17 measures of quality. Clearly, they are taking an objective approach to their rankings, as cryptic as they may be. While social life and nonacademic factors are integral to the college experience, you cannot quantify those experiences accurately, or fairly. Therefore, US News doesn’t have much choice but to leave those factors out of the already confusing algorithm—a drawback that is minimized by the fact that every school must endure it. It’s true that they can’t quantify classic college experiences like eating at Swings or sitting on Foss with your friends, but that’s why we have a marketing department.
It’s easy to undermine college rankings with reasoning like, “prestige-obsessed people wouldn’t be a good fit at Wesleyan, anyways” or “the rankings are just based on endowment size,” but the impact of these rankings is not easily dismissed for several reasons.
These rankings do matter to millions of seniors applying to college now more than ever. Since many students can’t tour colleges in person due to Covid-19 safety regulations, applicants are likely turning to college rankings as one of their few remaining indicators of which college can offer them the best experiences and future opportunities. Due to the pandemic, there are no more “It felt like home the moment I stepped on campus!” moments. Because these lists are now playing a heightened role in the college selection process, a consistent, gradual decline in the ranking isn’t attractive to prospective students.
Even if the applicants don’t consider themselves to be obsessed with prestige, we all know the college process doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everybody seems to offer their opinion, from parents to guidance counselors to teachers to other students. While their advice and opinions are generally well-intentioned, it is often guided by these rankings, potentially making college rankings play an even large role in deciding where a student ultimately lands. Our ranking this year could fundamentally determine what next year’s class size, academic profile, and acceptance rate look like.
Your college decision doesn’t end in high school but rather can continue to impact you later in life. While your undergraduate degree does not determine your fate, it would be naïve to argue that a prestigious degree doesn’t help to get your foot in the door in competitive and popular industries like finance, law, and medicine. At the very least, it doesn’t hurt. While it may be less applicable in our case when comparing the prestige of the 12th ranked vs the 20th ranked liberal arts college, if we continue on this decline, it could easily become applicable. It would be ignorant to claim that it couldn’t happen to us because recent history has shown that it can happen, and has happened, to similar institutions such as Oberlin College. If Wesleyan’s ranking continues to slide, the value of a Wesleyan degree is at grave risk of being in less demand and less desired, potentially further damaging its respectability.
Fortunately, Wesleyan is still held in high regard. The University has produced many impressive alumni in a broad number of fields, has a renowned activist-centered culture, and is academically well respected. While we should celebrate these successes and take pride in our school, we also cannot let the administration rest on its laurels. A university is only as good as the people who care about upholding it. If we aren’t careful, these rankings could determine whether Wesleyan’s future is one of continued success, or if it’s the cautionary tale used by other institutions as an example of what not to emulate. Some viable solutions that could be applied could be to: invest in marketing in order to drive up the number of applications Wesleyan receives while simultaneously decreasing the number of applicants we admit, improve the first-year experience in order to increase our first-year retention rate—which is on the decline, and facilitate closer relationships with alumni, especially prominent ones, to help boost our endowment and increase per-student spending.
It’s hard to say what’s right and what’s wrong, and it is frustrating that these numbers are so significant to so many, but seeing that the U.S. News and World Report isn’t going out of business any time soon, we must stop passively sitting in our ivory tower, and take preventative steps such as the ones suggested above. Benjamin Franklin once said that “nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to modify that statement to say “nothing can be certain, except death, taxes, and the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.”
Zoe Genden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org