BY CARA MURPHY '14
I am of the opinion that rankings are garbage, but, because so many people pay attention to them, schools should do what they can to ensure they are providing the best experience for their students so their numbers organically improve rather than focus specifically on targeting one thing or another.
I suppose the U.S. News and World Report does its best to compare institutions, but their methodology leaves me with a few questions.
The fact that graduation and retention rates account for 22.5 percent of total rank seems reasonable. I appreciate that the score allows students six years to graduate, which allows students to pursue nontraditional degree paths, which is often the case at Mount Holyoke.
Another 22.5 percent of the ranking measure is academic reputation. Reputation does not directly measure how good a school is. Furthermore, they asked 2,200 high school counselors to rate schools and only 9 percent responded last year, which means they are assigning significant value to the belief of fewer than 200 guidance counselors from across the country. If the respondent didn’t have a clue about the school — and it’s likely that many overworked, underqualified guidance counselors don’t when it comes to small liberal arts colleges — they didn’t rate the school. So overall, 7.5 percent of a college’s score is based on assumptions made by folks who may very well know little to nothing about the actual goings-on at any given college.
The remainder of this score factors in the assumptions of professionals in academia. They at least have some idea, having colleagues at different institutions, but still, outside reputation does not equate to quality of education. Everyone you will talk to will say, “Oh Harvard is a fantastic school, wow, how impressive,” yet outside of New England and our grandparents, you hear, “Mount Holyoke, that’s a girl’s school, right?”
In 2007, members of the Annapolis Group, a group that represents approximately 130 liberal arts colleges in the United States, including Mount Holyoke, pledged not to participate in this portion of the ranking process. This just goes to show how little faith academics have in the measure.
The category of faculty resources accounts for 20 percent. While I agree with the importance placed on resources for faculty, several of the factors used to assess schools are better measures of how wealthy a school is than of how good it is at preparing its students for life beyond college. Faculty who have earned a terminal degree, i.e. have a Ph.D., in their field are going to cost more than professors with a lesser degree. And no offense to any professors with doctorates, but a fancy piece of paper doesn’t automatically make someone a better, more engaging teacher.
12.5 percent is given to student selectivity. Part of this is based on SAT and ACT scores and GPA, which is fine if you want to compare incoming students. But what does that tell you about how rigorous, engaging, or effective colleges are after they admit their students? For that, U.S. News pulls a doozie. Each year they decide what percentage of an entering class will graduate in six years.
After those six years they look at the actual graduating percentage, and do some subtraction. If they overestimated, then the college is an “underperforming” college, but if U.S. News underestimated the actual graduation rate, the college is enhancing their students’ achievement — good job, you get an extra 7.5 points out of 100!
Financial resources account for 10 percent. According to the U.S. News’ methodology guidelines, “Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services.” You can’t count any spending on athletics or housing in this metric.
Schools with smaller endowments can’t afford to have multiple capital campaigns going on at once, and recently Mount Holyoke has built Creighton and redone basically all of the Athletics and Dance facilities as well as North and South Mandelle. A lot of money has been spent to improve campus life for students, but it doesn’t show in the ranking. The new dining facility should help with this metric in the next few years.
I don’t want to see Mount Holyoke kowtowing to such a flawed system. I equate it to school districts focusing their curricula to make sure that students pass their state’s standardized tests and dramatically reducing their students’ potential for development. Screw the rankings: the best way to demonstrate that Mount Holyoke is a fantastic school is to continue focusing on carrying out the College’s mission and produce graduates who are imbued with the skills to pursue lives of thoughtful, effective and purposeful engagement in the world.