A regular reader sent us (pdf) these details behind this year’s US News rankings. Let’s spend five days discussing them. Today is Day 2.

Continuing our examination of the first portion of the data:


Note the key importance of Faculty Resources. On almost all other measures, Williams is very similar to its peer group, as we would expect. From the methodology:

Faculty resources (20 percent): Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely they are to graduate. U.S. News uses five factors from the 2015-2016 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction.

Class size is 40 percent of this measure. Schools receive the most credit in this index for their proportion of undergraduate classes with fewer than 20 students. Classes with 20-29 students score second highest; those with 30-39 students, third highest; and those with 40-49 students, fourth highest. Classes that have 50 or more students receive no credit.

Faculty salary (35 percent) is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International. U.S. News also weighs the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent) and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent).

We will look tomorrow at some of the underlying details of this score, but, to the extent that there is a single explanation as to why there is a such a big 5 point gap between Williams and its peers, Faculty Resources is the primary explanation.

By the way, recall this question:

David, can you provide one single piece of evidence that this ranking is in any way important to the college’s reputation, let alone critically important? Maybe it was in the 1980s when these rankings first came out. But I don’t think you can.

Foolish reader! If the rankings weren’t important, than how do you explain this?

A presentation by Catherine Watt, the former institutional researcher and now a staff member at Clemson University, laid bare in a way that is usually left to the imagination the steps that Clemson has (rather brazenly) taken since 2001 to move from 38th to 22nd in U.S. News’s ranking of public research universities. …

When President James F. Barker took over the South Carolina institution in 2001, he vowed in his initial interview to move Clemson into the top 20 (a distinction that many research universities covet, but few can achieve, given that most of those already in the top 20 aren’t eager to relinquish their spots). Although many people on the campus were skeptical, Clemson has pursued the goal almost single-mindedly, seeking to “affect — I’m hesitating to use the word ‘manipulate,’ ” Watt said — “every possible indicator to the greatest extent possible.” She added: “It is the thing around which almost everything revolves for the president’s office.”

That statement was among the first at Watt’s session that provoked murmurs of discomfort (and more) from the audience — there would be many more as she described the various steps Clemson had taken to alter its profile in order to improve its U.S. News standing. …

The easiest moves, she said, revolved around class size: Clemson has significantly increased the proportion of its classes with fewer than 20 students, one key U.S. News indicator of a strong student experience. While Clemson has always had comparatively small class sizes for a public land-grant university, it has focused, Watt said, on trying to bump sections with 20 and 25 students down to 18 or 19, but letting a class with 55 rise to 70. “Two or three students here and there, what a difference it can make,” she said. “It’s manipulation around the edges.”

If the rankings are not important, then why do Clemson (and dozens of other schools) go to so much trouble to manipulate them?

Some of our snottier readers may mock Clemson for this manipulation, but such mockery just demonstrates their naivete. Consider Williams class sizes this fall. Example:


You think that the English department made a careful study of the optimal size of 100-level classes and just happened to decide that 19 or fewer was best for our students? Ha! President Morton O. Schapiro wanted Williams to be #1 in US News and he decreed that, to the greatest extent possible, class sizes should be fewer than 20. His legacy lives on.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!

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