Mount Holyoke left in the dust? Breaking down the college rankings

Graphic by Thalia Brown '19

Graphic by Thalia Brown '19


U.S. News & World Report published its highly anticipated 2017 Best Colleges Report Sept. 12, and many Mount Holyoke students were disappointed to see its ranking as 36th, marked as a tie with Lafayette College.  

Mount Holyoke College received a score of 76 out of 100 points from U.S. News. This score is derived from several parts of the college experience. According to U.S. News, these factors are graduate performance rank, alumni giving, graduation and retention rates, undergraduate academic reputation, faculty resources, student selectivity and financial resources. These categories are later divided even further. 

The two pieces of this puzzle with the most weight given to them are graduation/retention rates and undergraduate academic reputation. These are both given 22.5 percent of the total score, making their worth close to half of the total possible score of the college. According to U.S. News and World Report’s website, the formula uses “measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it’s based on U.S. News’ researched view of what matters in education.” 

The scores given to colleges can be relatively ambiguous. While some are facts that are accessible to students online, like Mount Holyoke College’s average first-year retention rate (91 percent), others are labeled as “peer assessment scores.” Such scores, which are measured on a one to five scale, are unavailable to students unless they pay for a $29.95 per year subscription. Without this subscription, students cannot access the data that goes into this public list. Editor-in-Chief Content Officer Brian Kelly said about this year’s publishing, “I encourage parents and students to use the wealth of data and information in Best Colleges to identify schools that suit their specific needs.” 

The data is largely collected from the colleges in an annual survey. This year, according to U.S. News, 93 percent of the total 1,374 institutions participated. For some schools, U.S Newsused the information that all colleges must send to the National Center for Education Statistics. Other forms of data are more subjective, including high school counselor score, ranging from one, or “marginal,” to five, or “dignified.” Other forms of data are not publicly accessible. 

The report has gained some virality since its first publication in 1983. According to, a website covering media industry news, the 2014 issue of “Best Colleges” reached 2.6 million users and over 18 million views in only one day. 

The rankings haven’t always been viewed favorably by the collegiate community. In 2007, a piece titled “The Presidents Letter” was sent to college and university presidents. This letter was largely written and developed by Lloyd Thacker, according to the non-profit organization Education Conservancy. Thacker is the director of Education Conservancy; its mission statement reads: “a non-profit organization committed to improving college admission processes for students, colleges and high schools.” The letter encouraged its recipients to “not complete the U.S. News reputational survey and not to mention their institution’s rankings in their promotional literature.” The letter continues, “more generally, refuse to refer to the rankings as an indication of the quality of your college or university.”

In June of that year, the Annapolis Group met to discuss the letter and the ranking system in details, according to Education Conservancy’s website. The Annapolis Group is an organization that represents close to 130 of “the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges.” Mount Holyoke is a member of this organization. Mount Holyoke College was not one of the signers of this letter, but signers included Sweet Briar College, Hampshire College, Kenyon College and Muhlenberg College, among the 60 plus schools signing in support of boycotting the U.S. News ranking system. Lafayette College, the school with which Mount Holyoke is tied,  is also a signer supporting this measure. 

In 2004, Mount Holyoke College President Joanne Creighton contributed to a piece published by The Annapolis Group, titled “Liberal Arts College Presidents Speak Out on College Ranking.” The piece featured a total of 15 statements from college presidents. 

Many students at Mount Holyoke find themselves struggling with the rankings. Hannah Seay ’17used to find the information presented useful in her applications. She said, “I used U.S. News when I was applying to college to help me make my college list and pick out what schools I wanted to apply to based on like location and the rankings.” 

Seay’s opinion of the rankings has changed during her time at Mount Holyoke.  “A lot of it is based on arbitrary facts that don’t actually represent the quality of education that you’ll receive at this school,” she said.