Nick Anderson (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., has long disdained the rankings game. The liberal arts school, which focuses on the great works of Western civilization, was known for not responding to requests from U.S. News & World Report for information that the magazine uses to sort the nation’s colleges.
U.S. News ranked the college anyway, listing it at 123rd among national liberal arts colleges a year ago. This year, St. John’s sent in some data. Lo and behold, its ranking rose — soaring 67 places, to 56th — as U.S. News published the 30th edition of its rankings Tuesday. It was the largest ranking spike among liberal arts colleges that placed in the top 150 in both years.
Christopher B. Nelson, president of the 500-student school in Annapolis, said St. John’s decided to send U.S. News a statistical profile in response to parents who wanted assurance that information they were finding in the magazine about the school’s finances, class size and other aspects was accurate. Nelson said Monday he still opposes the rankings, noting that his school’s sudden rise on the list ought to raise questions.
“It should suggest something about the unreliability of the rankings, frankly,” Nelson said.
The annual release of the U.S. News lists is a ritual that leaves many college presidents ambivalent. The rankings provide valuable publicity for many schools seeking attention in a highly competitive market. But they also define a school’s place in higher education through a single ordinal number derived from a subjective formula.
Top among national universities in 2014-2015, says U.S. News: Princeton. First among national liberal arts colleges: Williams.
Both schools held the title the previous year, and the year before that, and the year before that. The last time Princeton was not No. 1 was 2010-2011, when it was No. 2.
For those who track ups and downs in the top 10, Wellesley rose from seventh to fourth among national liberal arts colleges and Middlebury College fell from fourth to seventh. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire slipped out of the top 10 among national universities, moving from 10th to 11th.
Do these types of oscillations matter?
“Not really,” said Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News. “But some people go crazy over very minute changes.”
A Washington Post analysis of U.S. News rankings from the past five years found, though, that some schools have showed significant movement in the rankings.
Among this year’s top 100 national liberal arts colleges, the two largest gainers since 2010-2011, aside from St. John’s branches in Annapolis and New Mexico, were Bennington College (from 122nd to 89th) and College of the Atlantic (131st to 99th).
During the same time, these national universities listed in the top 100 rose more than 20 steps: Texas Christian University (from 99th to 76th); University of Massachusetts-Amherst (also 99th to 76th); and Northeastern University (69th to 42nd).
“Northeastern is worthy of study,” said Ralph Kuncl, president of University of Redlands in California, who has written about variations in the U.S. News rankings. Not long ago, Kuncl said, “Northeastern was a pretty sleepy Boston wannabe.” No longer.
The private university has gained prestige steadily during the past two decades, first under a president who explicitly sought to raise the school’s ranking, Richard Freeland, and now under his successor, Joseph E. Aoun, who says that is not his goal.
Stephen Director, Northeastern’s provost, said Monday that the university has improved graduation rates, expanded faculty and strengthened its curriculum. “Our goal here has been to improve Northeastern along multiple dimensions,” Director said.
Among the factors in the ranking formula are admission-test scores for incoming freshmen, admission rates, graduation rates, student-faculty ratios, alumni giving and perceptions of the school among its peers and high school counselors.
Admission policies play a key role in whether a school gets ranked. Sarah Lawrence College, which had been unranked for several years, was listed as 59th among national liberal arts colleges after it decided to consider admission-test scores if students submit them. Hampshire College, which had been ranked 110th in 2013-2014, was dropped from the liberal arts ranking after it decided it would not consider SAT or ACT scores in admissions.
“We’re not going to get into a big fight with U.S. News,” said Hampshire’s dean of admissions, Meredith Twombly. “Obviously I question their logic and their rationale.”
Several schools in recent years, including George Washington University, have acknowledged giving U.S. News erroneous data. Critics say these episodes show the rankings are susceptible to manipulation. The magazine says the inaccuracies have been isolated.