Rankings: The Message Behind the Methodology

The Claremont Colleges have been at the forefront of national ranking news in the past year, eliciting controversy as well as celebration. In September 2011, Scripps under-reported several statistics to the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR), causing Scripps to fall several places in the rankings. In October 2011, Pitzer and Pomona were both among the top colleges to produce Fulbright scholars. Most recently, CMC has come under national scrutiny after President Pamela Gann disclosed that an admissions officer had reported false SAT scores to several organizations, including UNSWR.

However, there has been backlash to the heavy media attention given to college rankings. In 2007, Pomona, along with 18 other schools, signed a letter agreeing to not publish rankings in their publications.  Pomona was the only one of the 5Cs to sign the letter.

“This country seems to be fixated on rankings,” said Pomona College Dean of Admissions Seth Allen. “There are lots of clues well beyond just the rankings that inform us whether we are following our missions and vision for the institution.”

Distorting the Reality of Colleges

At all 5Cs, administrators agreed that rankings can never produce an accurate picture of colleges. 

“Rankings provide only slices of information and they don’t provide a full picture that you might find on campus,” said Scripps Vice President for Enrollment Victoria Romero. “I think that there are other ways to accurately reflect Scripps College.” 

Peter Osgood PO ’81, Director of Admissions at Harvey Mudd, agreed that rankings do not accurately reflect the personality of colleges. 

“If [rankings] get a student to look at us first, I have no great objection, but they should want to come here for the place and the personality of a school, and that’s very hard to show up in a rankings,” Osgood said. 

The methodology used by USNWR focuses mostly on academics, admissions and post-graduate success. Other rankings focus on more specific aspects of colleges, such as sustainability or financial aid.

However, rankings rarely contain information on campus life or students. In addition, rankings tend to contain very little text, which reduces the school to a single number, rather than revealing more information. 

Osgood pointed out college rankings can be misleading when different schools are compared using the same categories of statistics.  

“We’re such a goofy school. We’re such our own niche place that we work for certain students,” Osgood said. Harvey Mudd, which Osgood called a math-and-science school, is classified as a Liberal Arts school in the USNWR along with all other 5Cs. This description does not capture its unique curriculum, Osgood said.

Other rankings, such as Princeton Review, base rankings on other aspects of colleges.  Osgood said that these rankings reveal certain details about campus life, but not the whole experience. For example, Pomona currently ranks 14th in “Dorms Like Palaces” and Harvey Mudd is ranked third in “Least Beautiful Campus,” evaluations that cannot be quantified and might be contested by students.

Challenging the Methodology

Members of the administration at Pitzer and CMC agreed that many important parts of colleges cannot be quantified by rankings. Schools such as Pitzer and CMC have unique programs that rankings such as the Princeton Review cannot fully address.

Anna Chang, Interim Vice President for Marketing & Public Relations at Pitzer College, said that, while rankings show the public perception of Pitzer, they are not a complete representation of Pitzer.  

“We don’t find the methodologies of these rankings to be reflective of our unique culture and our core values,” Chang said in an e-mail to TSL.

Although currently at the lowest rank among the 5Cs, Pitzer is being recognized with unique programs and specific achievements, such as the Secular Studies Field Group, sustainability efforts and being the top producer of Fulbright scholars.

CMC President Pamela Gann expressed similar sentiments that the rankings are unable to capture many of the unique aspects of colleges, including CMC. UNSWR does accurately reflect some aspects of CMC, including graduation/retention rates, faculty and financial resources, Gann told TSL in September.

However, USNWR does not measure many programs at CMC that are unique or highly acclaimed.  Gann pointed to the Athenaeum, which brings in speakers from other schools, as an example of a program that is important to the CMC education. Rankings and quantifiable evaluations are fundamentally unable to capture the many aspects of campus life.

Do Rankings Affect the College?

While administrators agreed that they want to continue to increase their national recognition, most said that college rankings do not influence policy decisions.

“We do not have any future plans literally to try to increase our rank on the list,” CMC President Pamela Gann said in an e-mail to TSL from September 2011, after CMC’s rank was increased from 11th to ninth in the USNWR. “We believe that if we continue to provide our students with an outstanding education, set of co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities and support them in obtaining the best possible choices after graduation, we will continue to have many applicants to CMC and for whom CMC is their first-choice.”

However, Brigitte Washington PO ’11, Campus Life Coordinator at Pomona College, said that Pomona’s frequent construction helps improve rankings.

“I was told by one of the administrators here that it looks good for the college to have a construction project going on because it shows that college is interested in renovating the spaces, keeping everything modern and updated, and at the same time it shows that the campus has money to be able to renovate their campus,” Washington said.

Pomona typically renovates or builds one residence hall a year and one classroom building a year. Pomona’s newest residence halls, Pomona and Sontag Halls, will be the first buildings in the 5Cs that are LEED-Platinum certified.  In addition, Pitzer’s Phase II residence halls, which will be completed in June, will most likely be LEED-Platinum certified as well. In accordance, Harvey Mudd is also erecting a new academic building with classrooms designed to support more modern teaching styles. To say, however, that this construction is solely to help improve rankings would be shortsighted as the colleges are building to accommodate growing and evolving student and academic life. 

Utilizing the Rankings

For Allen, Pomona’s high rankings in places such as USNWR, Princeton Review and Kiplinger’s Best Values in College Rankings allow Pomona to become more visible on a national stage.  High rankings will allow students who would have never otherwise heard of Pomona to learn about what it has to offer.

“There’s no doubt that rankings help Pomona give a visibility that it can often be difficult for small colleges to achieve,” Allen said.  Unlike larger universities, Pomona does not have Division I sports or research facilities that typically make larger universities more visible.

Admissions officers at the 5Cs, however, say they have found that most prospective students are not concerned with rankings.  

“Very seldom have I been specifically been asked about rankings,” Romero said.

Allen cautioned against over-emphasizing rankings. 

“I think we take it all with a grain of salt,” he said.

Ranking colleges is like ranking admitted students, Allen added.  It is impossible to rank each student when dealing with such a large number of diverse and obviously different students.  

“That’s the fallacy of rankings is that they try to introduce a level of precision that simply doesn’t exist, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it doesn’t promote a kind of visibility,” Allen said.

For many members of administrations at the 5Cs, rankings are far from the most important issue on campus. A college’s value should be based on the individual experiences of faculty, administration and students.  

Pomona Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum said, “If you asked me where Pomona deserves to be, I would say, without hesitation, number 1 for sure.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misrepresented a quote by Scripps Vice President for Communication and Marketing Marylou Ferry. She said that value is on families minds in these challenging economic times. She referred to families in general and did not single out any specific group of students or families. We apologize for our error.

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