College rankings are biased against women’s colleges

Photo Courtesy of Thalia Brown ’19

Photo Courtesy of Thalia Brown ’19


Most college students would agree that it is impossible to condense a college’s worth into quantifiable categories that, when processed through an all-knowing equation, spit out an indisputable rank. Despite the questionable validity of college rankings, they determine how the nation views us, whether or not prospective students apply and the worth of our degrees. Because college rankings have sway over the reputation of a college, these rankings must be unbiased. Unfortunately, for women’s colleges, this is not a reality. 

After Mount Holyoke’s rank improved, I looked at the categories colleges were ranked on and the weight of each category on the U.S. News website. A few categories stuck out to me, including student selectivity for the incoming class, faculty resources and financial resources. Added together, these categories have a 29.5 percent weight on the overall rank of a college.

Perhaps the most obvious category in which women’s colleges are at a disadvantage is the Student Selectivity category (12.5 percent of the overall ranking), which is broken down into acceptance rate, high school class standing in the top 10 percent, and critical reading and math portions of the SAT and composite ACT scores. 

Women’s colleges are at a disadvantage for the first two subcategories of Student Selectivity for the same reason: women’s colleges do not allow cis men to apply, meaning that the pool of prospective students is much smaller for Mount Holyoke than for a co-ed college. Compare Mount Holyoke to Amherst College. Since 50 percent more high school seniors can apply to Amherst, their applicant pool will be larger than Mount Holyoke’s. Because of this larger pool, more people can apply to and be rejected by Amherst College, resulting in a lower acceptance rate. Additionally, colleges get a better score for Student Selectivity if a large number of students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Most students applying to college attended co-ed high schools, so half of students in the top 10 percent are cis men, and therefore unable to apply to women’s colleges. These subcategories wouldn’t be an issue if women’s colleges were smaller than co-ed colleges, but most women’s colleges have the same population as co-ed colleges. When ranking systems ignore the size of the prospective student pool, women’s colleges are negatively affected by making acceptance rates seem less impressive than they are. 

The remaining, and most weighted, component of the Student Selectivity category lies in the controversial hands of standardized testing. Currently, girls in high school outperform boys in math classes, and yet this is not reflected by the SATs/ACTs. This bias is about 40 years old, and on the SATs, boys score, on average, 30 points higher than girls in the math section. A similar trend is seen on the ACTs, though not to the same extent. Since those applying to women’s colleges are mostly women, this gender gap has a larger effect on rankings than it does for coed colleges, which is concerning since standardized testing accounts for 8.125 percent of the College’s overall rank. 

The last two categories, faculty resources (specifically faculty compensation) and financial resources, are problematic because women make less money than men, be it due to the systematic oppression in the workplace or the fact that women typically work fewer hours. Regardless, an overwhelming majority of students at women’s colleges are women and are destined to make less than men, despite their excellent education. 

So how does this affect the ranking of women’s colleges? As we all know from the “Thank an alumnae” program at Mount Holyoke, a large portion of the money that maintains the College is donated by alumnae. Donations affect not only faculty salaries (7 percent of our ranking), but also financial resources (10 percent of our ranking). Because the women make less than men, the average wealth of our alumnae is lower than that of alumni at co-ed colleges. This affects the amount of money alumni can donate to the College and thus affects 17 percent of our overall ranking. 

Generally, ranking systems are challenged because they don’t provide a holistic view of colleges, but for women’s colleges the ranking system is even more controversial. College rankings ignore factors outside of each college; they rank the quality of a school as though it exists in a vacuum, unaffected by societal realities. Women’s colleges already face criticisms, such as the claim that alumnae will be underprepared for the professional world. Additionally, the relevance of women’s colleges has been questioned, especially after the initial closure of Sweet Briar College. The last thing we need is a ranking system biased against women’s colleges that perpetuates these ludicrous beliefs.

Perhaps the worst part about this ranking reality is that it does not surprise me. No one, however, sums it up better than Charlotte Whitton: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”