The Eagle provides a nice overview article on the recently-released US News rankings.

For the second straight year, Williams College has come out on top in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking of the nation’s liberal art colleges.

The annual rankings, which will appear in the issue that hits the newsstands on Monday, also say the college is doing well at keeping down the amount of debt students have when they graduate, and is the best value among liberal arts colleges.

But college officials weren’t crowing about the distinction, noting that it may lead to a bump in applications and name recognition, but that any broader benefits are hard to identify.

“We believe being consistently rated in the top three has been helpful to the college,” Williams spokesman James Kolesar said. “It is not crystal clear whether being one, two or three makes a difference. It probably does, but it’s not that big.”

Last year, Williams took the top spot for the first time since 1992. Since the U.S. News rankings began in 1983, Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore colleges have had a virtual lock on the top three spots.

Kolesar said he believes Williams was able to jump to the top by improving its faculty resource rank, which includes factors like class size, faculty salaries and the proportion of full-time faculty. This year, Williams ranked third in this category. Kolesar said the 15 percent increase in the size of the faculty in the last three years, as well as the tutorial program and smaller class sizes, enabled it to improve the ranking.

Note how well-versed Kolesar ’72 is on the intricacies of these rankings. They matter. I’ll leave a full discussion and critique for another day.

Williams Admissions Director Richard Nesbitt said that simply jumping from No. 2 to No. 1 last year appears to have led to a roughly 6 percent increase in applications, but it is hard to say if it had other effects, such as increasing the number of accepted students who actually attend.

It would be a great senior thesis to look at this, both in the context of Williams and — although this may have already been done — in the context of other schools. How much influence do the US News rankings have on applications and yield?

“It’s very hard to measure what the actual effect is, but I think it is probably less than people think,” he said. “People still have to visit the campus and have to want to come here.”

Dick Nesbitt ’74 is a smart guy, so I wouldn’t want to bet against him on this. Still, it is an empirical question! Where are the ambitious ECON or even MATH/STAT students nowadays?

Increased name recognition is one of the benefits, particularly among international students, Nesbitt said. But when pitching the college to potential applicants, he said he rarely mentions the rankings.

“It’s not something [where] you go around saying, ‘We’re No. 1,’ ” he said. “There is an awareness of it, because [guidance] counselors tend to have copies of this around their offices, but it is something I’m personally low-key about because each of these top liberal arts colleges is a wonderful place.”

In addition to its overall ranking, Williams ranked at the top among liberal arts colleges for being the best financial value for the quality of education it offers.

The magazine notes that 40 percent of students receive need-based grants, and that the average cost for those students after their grants is $14,685 — a 62 percent discount from the full cost of attending.

The shocking thing to me about this is not how much aid Williams generously gives, but how wealthy the pool of enrolling students. 60% of the students need no aid! Isn’t it amazing that a majority of the students come from families that can afford $200,000?

The college also does well in the amount of debt graduates carry when they leave the school. Forty-six percent of graduates carry some debt, with an average amount of $10,627.

It would be helpful to have more detail on the distribution here. If one person walks out with $100,000 in debt and 9 walk out owing $1, then the “average” is indeed $10,000. But this is, obviously, different than having the debt load spread equally. A debt of $10,000 doesn’t prevent one from teaching private school. A debt of $100,000 makes that career choice a lot harder.

Williams was also recognized for its impressive record on campus diversity. Kolesar said the college is close to 30 percent minority, with an additional 6 percent consisting of international students.

When a “majority” of students at Williams are “minority” — something that will certainly occur in my lifetime, and probably much sooner — will we still call them “minority” students? Won’t they be the “majority” at that point?

By the way, what race are those international students? Or, rather, does the College not count international students in its minority population? I had thought that it did.

But while the annual U.S. News rankings will be closely watched by many high school students and some administrators, more and more folks in higher education are criticizing the rankings for attempting to quantify and simplify the differences between schools.

Really? The rankings have always been extensively criticized. I am unaware of any evidence that the criticism is greater now than it was 10 years ago.

This month, the Annapolis Group — a consortium of private liberal arts colleges, including Williams — released on its Web site a series of statements from member presidents criticizing the rankings.

Joan Hinde Stewart, president of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., which is ranked 19th, said rankings are dangerously simple.

“With the implication that institutions of such diversity can be formulaically compared and ordered, rankings do a disservice to the richness and complexity of American higher education and a disservice to the 17- and 18-year-olds who are making one of the first really difficult decisions of their lives,” she said.

Blah, blah, blah. Of course, any ranking/evaluation system leaves stuff out and comes with a certain set of biases. But I would be a lot more impressed with criticism from the like of Stewart if she stated what specific parts of Hamilton were better than specific parts of higher rated schools and/or what specific types of students would be better off at Hamilton then they would be elsewhere.

UPDATE: Given the annual shenanigan’s at USN&WR, we can be pretty sure that Williams will not be ranked #1 forever. Indeed, the magazine is (in)famous for changing the weighting of various factors from year to year in order to generate turnover in the rankings. It is, therefore, useful to keep in mind the many reasons why this annual ranking exercise is more than a bit of a scam.

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