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Forbes Ranks Williams #1

Forbes has ranked Williams the #1 college in the US.



1) This ranking, while nice, is not nearly as important as the US New ranking. If Adam Falk does not do everything he can to ensure that Williams stays on top there, then he is not doing his job.

2) Always remember that, at bottom, Williams is selling a luxury good. And the people in the market for luxury goods care both about actual quality — to the extent that they can judge it directly themselves — and about its perceived or reputational quality. The more often that Williams is ranked #1, the stronger our applicant pool will be and the more likely admitted students are to choose Williams over Amherst or various Ivies.

3) Always remember that the fundamental reason why Williams is a great school is not the quality of the faculty. You really think that, say, the average Williams faculty in, say, English is meaningfully better than the average English professor at, say, Connecticut College or any other NESCAC school? Hah! You’re deluded. But the average student at Williams is much stronger than the average students at lower tiered NESCAC schools, and that is what makes a Williams classroom, and therefore a Williams education, much better.

4) Rankings will be even more important over the next 20 years than they have been over the last 20 as the liberal arts college business becomes more global. High quality East Asian (read: Chinese) applicants and their families care a lot about rankings.

5) Details on the methodology are here or here. Score components here. Color me skeptical. The problems with these variables, and how they are measured, are almost too numerous to bother with. But the organization behind the data analysis, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) is credible, so I suspect/hope that there are not any glaring errors.

6) The main clue that these ratings are suspect is how variable they are from year to year. (Williams was ranked 8th last year and 2nd the year before that.) Whatever you think about the relative quality of, say, Williams and Harvard, your evaluation should be more or less the same next year as it was last year. Institutions change very slowly. But stasis does not sell magazines! So, these ratings are constructed to change much more often than they ought to.

What do readers think of the methodology?

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#1 Comment By HC On August 17, 2014 @ 7:53 am


As you suggest the methodology places a high value on affluence and comfort (student retention/ luxury). This puts the service academies at a severe disadvantage. Their methodology is discipline and discomfort as a method for learning.

Is a school really “better” because people are comfortable in the setting and it is nearly impossible to get expelled or fail?

There is a clear bias toward a preponderance of inherited wealth and privilege.

#2 Comment By frank uible On August 17, 2014 @ 11:23 am

A bias – true, but not nearly the bias found in the world-at-large or the USA-at-large.

#3 Comment By Past Eph On August 26, 2014 @ 7:30 am

Williams and Amherst have taken a decidedly different approach in this regard in recent years.

Williams has dominated Amherst in college rankings, both in Forbes and especially in US News, where Williams has now ranked first for over 10 years running. Williams has just completed a bunch of spectacular facilities that one would think would wow prospective applicants: two gorgeous new or rebuilt student centers, state-of-the-art dining facilities, world-class theater, and now, in particular, the new library, which has the greatest wow factor of all. Williams has smaller class sizes and a lower student-faculty ratio than Amherst, and substantially higher graduation rates. All of these things (especially the faculty-student ratio and graduation rates) play into Williams having a better US News ranking year after year, despite having a much higher (meaning worse) admissions rate, year after year. Those factors also help Williams in Forbes.

Amherst, meanwhile, has let its core academic and student life facilities age to a shocking degree. Although it is planning a massive new science center, as of now, those plans are on hold and being totally reformulated, and the science center as it stands is egregiously dated. It will be at least four years before a new science center is inhabited. Its student center, library, theater, and dining hall all pale in comparison to not just Williams, but many other top liberal arts schools (certainly Midd and Swarthmore). The dining hall and student center, in particular, are badly in need of wholesale upgrades, as they are relics of the 1980s. Other than dorms (where Amherst is in great shape) and athletic facilities (where Amherst, like Williams, just completed a new football field), Amherst currently has a physical plant that is basically two or three decades behind where Williams’ is.

Why? Because Amherst has instead poured its resources into financial aid and into recruiting and funding minority and non-traditional (community college transfers, veteran, etc.) candidates. The differences haven’t been as dramatic (Williams has quietly had strong results in the same arena, other than the fact that Amherst takes far more transfer students) as all the attendant publicity Amherst has received would make it seem — Williams has nearly as many Pell Grant recipients and just as many first-generation students as Amherst does, although it does lag behind in racial and international diversity (37 vs. 44 percent American students of color, and Amherst had 10 percent internationals this year) and Amherst has substantially more students, overall, receiving financial aid, and those who do receive aid pay no loans.

So let’s look at the results in terms of the applicant pool — Amherst received about 2000 (!!) more applicants than Williams this past year. I think that huge a disparity is likely a one-off occurrence, but the trend is clear, Amherst’s applicant pool has been growing while Williams’, despite all the glossy new facilities and superior rankings, has been basically stagnant for a number of years, and Amherst typically receives at least 1000 more applicants than Williams does. And the academic credentials of incoming Amherst students have dropped barely at all (maybe 10 points on the SAT, and a slightly lower proportion of incoming students ranked in top 10 percent), and to the extent they have dropped, that is surely a factor of who they are deciding to admit rather than who is choosing to apply.

So as of now, it seems like applicants aren’t quite as shallow as indicated by this post: despite a more comfortable and attractive campus, better retention, better faculty-student ratio, and over a decade of better rankings, Amherst’s applicant pool is larger and produces just as good results as Williams’. Amherst as noted above has received a huge amount of glowing publicity for its efforts to increase economic diversity on campus, and that is clearly paying off more than any minor impact on US News rankings that those efforts are resulting in.

Now that Williams’ building binge is nearly complete and the campus is only one year away (once old Sawyer is demolished) from what was ultimately envisioned, the difference between the two school’s physical plants will be more dramatic / immediately apparent to prospectives, especially because at some point Amherst will need to start a disruptive building binge of its own to accommodate the new science center. (
As a side note, now might be a good time for Williams to FINALLY create an online virtual tour, which for some reason it never has done, to at least highlight this world-class physical plant). Perhaps we will see some changes in the relative applicant pool at that point. Or perhaps, like with rankings, today’s adolescents simply don’t care, and would rather apply to a place that has made it number one emphasis economic, racial, and other forms of campus diversity, and now has the most diverse student body of any top liberal arts school to show for it.

#4 Comment By hc On September 1, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

Past Eph,

I think it is important to note that Williams has not matriculated a single post 9/11 veteran. Amherst has matriculated scores of men and women who fought this generations war at this point. Non traditional students are much more welcome at Amherst. Most vets are going to be in their late 20s or older. The larger applicant pool is perhaps an indication that Amherst welcomes a much broader range of applicants: including those of a non traditional age who have more life experience.

Also, there is a diversity in the Northampton area: it is not overwhelmingly dominated by the school, the way that Williamstown is. Older applicants are going to feel the imbalance at Williams. The more Williams builds in the rural mountains, the odder and less comfortable it becomes to the setting. People who have life experience are going to feel the imbalance almost immediately.

For many, Williams is not a friendly place. I doubt the same can be said about Amherst.

#5 Comment By frank uible On September 2, 2014 @ 1:50 am

Youse guys don’t possibly have a certain agenda, do youse?

#6 Comment By Past Eph On September 2, 2014 @ 8:01 am

Actually, Frank, I think it’s fair to say that HC, David, and I all have three very different agendas. Probably the only thing we would all agree upon is that Williams would be wise to actively recruit more veterans and community college graduates. Perhaps once the school completes more upperclass housing (which is in the works) there will be a bit more room to bring in more transfers and non-traditional students, in particular. Right now, there is a really tight crunch in terms of upperclass beds.

My main point was to show that there is no evidence that Williams’ now longstanding dominance of college rankings has materially affected the Williams applicant pool, and I think it’s silly, as David suggests, to in any way structure institutional policy to improve rankings. To the extent existing policies (like a lower faculty-student ratio, and smaller class sizes) make sense on their own and also help rankings, well, great, but that’s just a bonus, and should not be a driving goal.

On the other hand, I disagree with most of what HC said. I think that most of the new construction on campus has been a huge net positive, and I don’t think that Williams should aim to be a small rural school at the expense of top-tier academic and student life facilities.

It’s laughable and simply false to say that Williams is a less “friendly” place than Amherst. I personally know people who in fact would say that Amherst was not “friendly” for them. I (and others I know) chose Williams over Amherst because of a friendly, funnier, more down-to-earth vibe on campus, and were put off by some of the pomp and circumstance surrounding Amherst. I’m sure others would say the opposite. It’s really a personal thing, and certain people will find one environment more appealing that the other, but it’s really idiosyncratic and holistic rather than tied to any one factor. Heck, if I was a minority applicant I’d be put off by Amherst’s close association with Lord Jeffrey!

And I note that Middlebury, which is just as rural and is FAR less diverse than Williams, also has a much bigger applicant pool. So that is certainly not the dispositive factor. I think that Amherst (and Middlebury) have been a lot more aggressive than Williams in certain forms of marketing and in terms of seeking applicants for applicants’ sake (again, with certain exceptions, like Amherst’s targeting of certain populations, but there we are talking about a small handful of applicants, in total). In the end, Williams gets a higher yield and student with equivalent or better credentials, which indicates that Williams is for whatever reason drawing an applicant pool that is more self-selecting, even though it’s now substantially smaller. I would like to see Williams grow its applicant pool, but again, not just for the pure number — I’d love to see more students from underrepresented areas of the country and the socio-economic spectrum applying, which would require some costly and time-consuming effort, but which would be well worth it.

One thing IS clear — the fact that Williams has a marginally higher college rankings is not drawing hoards of ADDITIONAL, marginally-interested applicants to apply; otherwise, Williams would not be lagging behind Amherst and Midd in terms of applicants. The folks who do apply would in all likelihood still be applying, and still be choosing Williams, regardless of whether it was ranked first or third in US News, Forbes, etc. (if it dropped ten spots in US News, that is a different story, but there is no chance of that ever occurring).

#7 Comment By frank uible On September 2, 2014 @ 10:57 am

Many (perhaps most) people seem to reflexively subscribe to the proposition that selecting one’s college is primarily about fit (along with finances), and then in the next moment they inconsistently dwell on rankings and the concept of one college’s general superiority over others.

#8 Comment By hc On September 4, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

Past Eph,

I was speaking more about the towns. Williamstown is Williams College. Almost entirely owned by the school at this point. The majority of the prime business real estate and the center of town is dominated by the school. The social scene is elitist. Williams is landlord. The liberal boss hog. Williamstown is gentrified, and the fastest shrinking town in the state f MA, so I suppose that means it must be #1?

Not so in a place like Amherst that also houses the zoo. Perhaps some of the kids are not interested in four more years of prep school, and want to slum it a little once in a while?

Lord Jeff applicants have a taste for a the state university blend. I know why he stole the books. To be number 2. Smart guy, Lord Jeff. #2 is looking pretty damn skippy.