“Pomona College? Where? What? How?” Richard Lui’s baffled queries to Forbes executive editor Michael Noer on MSNBC are largely indicative of the media response to Pomona’s #2 ranking in the 2013 Forbes college rankings. Upending the Ivy stalwarts of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, Pomona’s rise to the upper echelons of the rankings list ignited a short-lived frenzy on campus.
“Like most college presidents, I have decidedly mixed feelings about college rankings, but occasionally one comes along that as a matter of institutional pride, I want to share with the whole community,” wrote President David Oxtoby in an email to students shortly after the release of the rankings in July 2013. “I pass this along simply as a confirmation that today’s Pomona College is always at the center of the conversation when you talk about the best institutions of higher learning in the world.”
A TSL investigation into Pomona’s admissions statistics following the 2013 Forbes ranking provides evidence that the ranking may have impacted the admissions process for members of the Class of 2018, who would have encountered the ranking the summer preceding their senior years of highs school. Pomona’s yield rate–the number of admitted students who enroll–increased by 20% after years of relative stagnation.
The Forbes rankings do not account for colleges’ “undergraduate academic reputation,” the largest component of the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) ranking. To compile the ranking, Forbes partners with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank headed by former Claremont McKenna College economics professor Richard Vedder. With Vedder at the helm, Forbes has geared ranking around Return on Investment (ROI), focusing on five key metrics: student satisfaction, post-graduate success, student debt, graduation rate, and nationally competitive awards.
For better or for worse, research indicates that scaling a rankings list does indeed attract a higher-quality applicant pool that is more likely to enroll in the given institution. In 1999, economists James Monks and Ronald Ehrenberg observed that a less favorable USNWR ranking “leads the institution to accept a greater percentage of its applicants (an increase in its admit rate), that a smaller percentage of its admitted pool of applicants matriculates (a decrease in its yield), and that its resulting entering class is of lower quality, as measured by average SAT scores.” In other words, colleges have every incentive to cater to these rankings. Some schools go as far as falsifying data to rise up the rankings. CMC–along with Emory, Bucknell, and Iona Colleges–have all admitted to inflating SAT scores.
Pomona’s jump on the 2013 Forbes rankings provides a perfect case study to examine the effect of college rankings within a single institution. The Common Data Set–an initiative spearheaded by College Board, USNWR, and Peterson’s–was consulted for this article.
The single statistic most associated with colleges is the acceptance rate. For the class of 2018, Pomona’s acceptance rate dropped to 12.19% the largest one-year drop since Pomona began publishing its Common Data Sets in 2006 (for the class of 2010). Fueling this dip in the acceptance rate was primarily an 8% increase in the number of applications.
For the Class of 2018, Pomona experienced a near-unprecedented increase in its yield rate. The yield rate – which has stayed remarkably close to 40% since the graduating class of 2010 – skyrocketed to 47.77%. This metric appears to suggest that Pomona was a more attractive option for accepted students than it was in previous years. Higher yield rates usually entail larger first-year class sizes: While the admissions department anticipated enrolled 400 first-years, 450 students accepted their offers of admission.
“Our offers of admissions this year were met with unprecedented enthusiasm,” Dean of Admissions Seth Allen wrote in an email to the student body. “Yield of admitted students, normally around 40% for many years, jumped to close to 50%. … This unpredicted increase took us by surprise and will make this class the largest in the College’s 127-year history.”
These numbers cannot be taken at face value, however. Colleges easily inflate their yield rates by accepting a larger portion of their class early decision, where accepted students are required to enroll. Observing the yield for regular decision students helps isolate the effect of early decision. A similar spike in regular decision yield rates indicates that this rise transcends more early decision admits.
Pomona’s admissions statistics for the class of 2018 were not indicative of a larger national trend of increasing yield rates. In fact, only at four of the eleven liberal arts colleges studied did regular decision yield rates increase from the class of 2017 to the class of 2018. Pomona’s 10 percent jump far exceeds any observable trend in the nationwide data for the 2018 admissions cycle.
In the most recent iteration of the rankings, Pomona plummeted to number 8, overtaken by Williams and several Ivy giants. Perhaps there’s truth to President Oxtoby’s statement following the release of the 2013 rankings: “[R]ankings are fickle creatures. What goes up must come down.”