Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe wrote a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 17 protesting the exclusion of HMC and other small colleges from the new Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings.
HMC is not considered in the WSJ/THE Rankings because it has 844 enrolled students, and the rankings only consider institutions with at least 1,000 enrolled students.
The ranking may consider small colleges if their faculty published 1,000 scholarly papers in the previous five years and 150 each year, but HMC's highest number of publications in a year was 122, according to Klawe.
“For a liberal arts college, that’s a really insane expectation,” she said in an interview with TSL.
Klawe’s letter to the editor was co-signed by the presidents of Wabash College, Agnes Scott College, St. John’s College, and Bennington College, which have all been excluded from their small enrollment numbers.
“[We] worry that your exclusion from The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings of some of the most outstanding small colleges in the country … does a disservice to your readers and to the very students and parents you are attempting to help,” the letter reads.
The letter praises the educational experience offered at these small colleges and argues that their reduced size plays a key role in it.
“With their small student-to-faculty ratios, our colleges are focused primarily on providing the highest quality teaching for undergraduates,” the letter says. “In many cases, colleges like ours have made conscious choices to remain small to better serve our students and our missions.”
Klawe believes THE, the London-based publication that determined the methodology for the ranking, may have assumed there were no relevant small colleges because of their lack of familiarity with the U.S. college system.
“Maybe they were unaware of the fact that there are some very highly regarded colleges with a smaller student population. … They probably didn’t know the U.S. higher education landscape well enough to realize it because they’re based in Britain,” she said.
HMC ranks 18th in Forbes’ America’s Best Colleges Ranking and 12th in U.S. News’ Best Liberal Arts Colleges Ranking.
“Realistically, it’s not that big a deal that we’re not ranked by the ranking,” she said.
High rankings, particularly in terms of post-graduation earnings, give assurance to families who may be dissuaded from enrolling their children in HMC due to its costs of attendance, the highest of any college in the country, Klawe said.
“The fact that payscale ranks us so highly is very helpful in terms of families thinking whether [HMC] is worth the investment or not,” she said.
But however useful rankings may be, Klawe believes they should not determine the college’s policies.
“We’re happy we’re highly ranked, but what we’re trying to do is to create the best science and engineering education on the planet,” she said. “What an external group thinks is important won’t change our practices if we don’t think it helps our educational outcomes.”
The other 5Cs are all included in the WSJ/THE ranking, but they fare worse than in other rankings. Pomona College is 26th, Claremont McKenna College 35th, Scripps College 93rd, and Pitzer College 115th.
Many students at HMC do not think rankings are not a central tool for choosing a college.
“I didn’t really look at rankings when looking for [college] options,” Andrea Vasquez HM ‘18 said. “I didn’t even know that HMC had the highest return of investment or anything like that until I had already accepted to come here.”
Vasquez said her visits to campus were her central motivation to enroll, but she understand others may depend more on rankings.
“For me, the most important factor when deciding to come here was speaking to people and figuring out what the community was like when I visited for different events that are held for pre-frosh,” she said. “But I know [rankings] can be important to some people because I know a few friends of mine who came here specifically because it was ranked highest in [return on investment].”
Other students considered rankings when scouting colleges, but not for their final decision.
“Rankings maybe limited the pool of colleges I would consider, but when I looked more in depth they had less of an impact,” Shayan Akmal HM ’19 said.
Last semester, students protested Mudd's burdensome curriculum and argued the school lacked mental health resources and support for women and minorities. In part, these protests were fueled by comments from faculty cited in a leaked external report evaluating HMC’s curriculum, which argued that efforts to include women and minorities in the college were hindering the college’s excellence.
“There was a lot of dialogue and a lot of claims made last semester, but I don’t think the data supports it,” Klawe said in reference to HMC’s recent evaluation of different groups’ performance in core courses.
Klawe said HMC is now prioritizing inclusion and student health, and not college rankings.
“What we’re really immersed in right now is, given that we have a very diverse student body and increasingly diverse faculty, let’s explore what it means to have a community that is truly inclusive,” she said. “We’re trying to figure how to teach so everyone learns.”
Klawe highlighted changes to the introductory engineering course as an example of HMC’s innovative approach to inclusion. After laboratory exercises and teamwork were given more importance in the curriculum, the difference between women’s and men’s performance seen in the previous 20 years disappeared, and performance improved overall.
“If [HMC] makes their education accessible to people of different backgrounds, they’re staying true to their mission statement of educating for social impact,” Vasquez said.