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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 5.
Our previous four day’s of discussions have hit the most important points. To summarize the highlights:
1) The gap between Williams and its competitors is bigger than it has ever been. Unless US News substantially changes its methodology (something that it has done less and less over the years), we should be safely #1 for several more years.
2) It is hard for us to be certain of the exact sources of our advantage, although faculty resources and financial resources are obviously key. How can we get more details? Recall this lovely bit of virtue-signalling from a decade ago.
Statement on College Rankings
I, and the other undersigned presidents, agree that prospective students benefit from having as complete information as possible in making their college choices.
Since college and ranking agencies should maintain a degree of distance to ensure objectivity, from now on data we make available to college guides will be made public via our Web sites rather than be distributed exclusively to a single entity.
Doing so is true to our educational mission and will allow interested parties to use this information for their own benefit. If, for example, class size is their focus, they will have that information. If it is the graduation rate, that will be easy to find. We welcome suggestions for other information we might also provide publicly.
Is that promise still operational? The Record should try and find out.
3) Any move that would increase our ranking (and would be good/neutral to the quality of the education Williams provides) should be implemented. The most important of these is decreasing the number of large lectures.
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 4.
Continuing our discussion of the underlying data, I am most suspicious of the Financial Resources information. Recall the methodology:
Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services. U.S. News measures financial resources by using the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms and hospitals doesn’t count.
The problem is two-fold: First, spending on dorms should count! Williams is a better college, at least partly, because our dorms are much nicer, especially the number and quality of our single rooms. A similar argument applies to our spending on sports. Second, lots of spending is suspect:
Nothing wrong with whales, of course. We are in no way Cetacea-phobes at EphBlog! However, the money spent here (which presumably helps Williams ranking) would have been better allocated to matching the financial aid awards from places like Harvard and Stanford.
2) Any thoughts on how much better Williams (93%) does in percentage of high school students in the top 10% of the class compared to colleges like Middlebury (79%) and Wellesley (80%)? This has, for years, been a strange statistic since so many high schools (especially elite prep schools) no longer report class ranks, both to decrease competition (the surface reason) and to make it easier for colleges to accept their students (the real reason). For Williams, the data looks like:
How long before US News gets rid of this component of its rankings? Middlebury, for example, no longer (pdf, page 10) reports high school ranks. Is about 80% what schools who don’t report get stuck with? Or does Middlebury report this data secretly to US News but not in its common data set?
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 3.
We talked yesterday about the importance of Faculty Resources to Williams’ dominance of the current rankings. Here are some more data points:
1) There are two components to the Faculty Resource score that don’t appear in this summary: percentage professors who a) have the highest degree in their fields and b) are full time. Any readers interested in a detailed analysis of the complete data set? The Record ought to partner with some other college papers to see how consistent elite LACs are in their reporting to US News. For example, does Williams count Winter Study instructors as faculty members? On one hand, they probably should since these instructors teach/grade required courses. But I bet that Williams doesn’t, not least because doing so would hurt these metrics.
2) Why does Williams do so well on the Faculty Resources score when compared to other elite schools? It is a mystery! We do relatively well on the percentage of classes below 20 (thanks Morty!) but (equally?) poorly on the percentage of large classes. (Are 3% of the classes at Williams above 50? That seems high.) I am also curious about the details associated with counting classes. Does a tutorial count as one class of 10 or five classes of 2?
3) What should Williams do? No More Lectures!
4) I am impressed with Amherst’s SAT scores. But are they still cheating? I think they are (pdf)!
Recall our discussions a decade ago (which, alas, I can’t seem to find). Honest college report the scores for all the students who take the SAT and all who take the ACT. Since many students take both, the data usual looks like this (from Williams).
How could it possibly be that 30% fewer students at Amherst take the SAT relative to Williams? I bet that the proportions are similar, but that Amherst cheats and does not report 30% of its SAT scores, for all those students whose ACT scores are better than their SAT scores. There is a great story here for a talented Record reporter.
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!
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 1.
1) The most important data point here is the huge gap between Williams and Amherst. (Thanks to our regular reader for pointing this out.) Recall the methodology:
To arrive at a school’s rank, U.S. News first calculated the weighted sum of its standardized scores. The final scores were rescaled so that the top school in each category received a value of 100, and the other schools’ weighted scores were calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores were rounded to the nearest whole number and ranked in descending order.
Exercise for the reader: Assume that by “standardized,” US News means that they take the mean and subtract the standard deviation, leading to sub-scores that are N(0, 1). How much does Williams have to be leading the other schools in various categories for it to have a 5 point lead in the overall ranking based on 100?
2) Note how well Williams does in the Peer Assessment and High School Guidance Counselor rankings. Note the circularity that this can generate. Williams has been ranked #1 by US News for 14 years. What sort of high school guidance counselors are likely to fill out a random questionnaire from US News? The sorts that care about the US News rankings. What sorts of schools are they likely to rank high? Schools that they have read about before in US News! Williams could, in truth, become a horrible school tomorrow and, for years, these counselors would rank it highly.
3) For giggles, not this part of the methodology:
To reduce the impact of strategic voting by respondents, U.S. News eliminated the two highest and two lowest scores each school received before calculating the average score.
Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate “all programs other than Clemson below average,” to make the university look better. “And I’m confident my president is not the only one who does that,” Watt said.
If such strategic voting is widespread, it is not clear if eliminating just four outlier scores will be enough to fight it.
Williams is #1 in the US News ranking for the 14th year in a row.
The 2017 Best Colleges rankings are out from U.S. News & World Report — and there are some familiar schools in the top slots. For the sixth straight year, Princeton University was named No. 1 in the “best national universities” category by the magazine, which surveys more than 1,800 colleges in America for its annual list. Meanwhile, Williams College in Massachusetts took the top spot among best national liberal arts colleges for the fourteenth consecutive year.
1) Every time that Williams appears in a headline like this with Princeton, the value of the Williams brand improves. Kudos to Adam Falk and the rest of the administration! There are few things more important (rightly or wrongly) to the College’s reputation, especially with international applicants and their families, then maintaining this ranking. Staying #1 may not be hard, given Williams’ resources, but screwing this up could have been easy.
2) Many schools do a lot of suspect/sleazy things to improve their rank. Does Williams? Morty, infamously, capped discussion class size at 19 to ensure that the maximum number of classes met this US News cut off.
3) There is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.
Williams is #1 again in the US News rankings. Comments:
1) We need someone (HWC?) to share with us the underlying data and provide an analysis of how safe this status is. Help!
2) Kudos to Adam Falk and the rest of the administration! There are few things more important to the Williams brand, especially with international applicants and their families, then maintaining this ranking. Staying #1 may not be hard, given Williams’ resources, but screwing this up could have been easy.
3) How many years in a row have we been #1? I lose track.
4) Many schools do a lot of suspect/sleazy things to improve their rank. Does Williams? Morty, infamously, capped discussion class size at 19 to ensure that the maximum number of classes met this US News cut off.
5) Thoughts on other schools? I am most suspicious of Bowdoin, with its SAT optional policy. My sense is that schools like Swarthmore and Pomona are much more competitive and have a higher quality student body. I am most worried, long term, about Pomona. Its LA location make it a much more practical school for international applicants from Asia.
Princeton, Williams College once again take top spots in U.S. News’ rankings for 2014-15
1) Every time that Williams appears in a headline like this with Princeton, the value of the Williams brand improves. It is very important that we maintain this #1 ranking, mainly for admissions, and especially for international students.
2) Kudos to Adam Falk (and everyone else at Williams) for making this happen. US News can be tricky about its methodology and the changes it makes from year-to-year. They would sell more magazines if there were more changes in the top, so maintaining a #1 ranking can be tricky.
3) As I mention each year, there is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.
4) Is anyone a subscriber to the detailed data. All I can see is:
We need to dive into the details. How far in the lead is Williams and what do we need to do to maintain the lead?
5) Recall my predictions from 5 years ago.
Although the competition is tough, our most serious competitor is Amherst and they will face real headwinds given their financial constraints. Their endowment is in more trouble than ours. Their increase in enrollment will hurt the student:faculty ratio. These ranks are based on data from before the financial crash, so the Williams advantage over Amherst will only continue. Don’t be surprised if/when Amherst falls behind Swarthmore in a year or two. I also suspect that Middlebury’s recent (and deserved) rise may be in danger.
Amherst hasn’t caught us, as predicted, and Middlebury has fallen from 4th to 7th. I still think that Amherst is in danger of falling behind Swarthmore, but we need more detailed data to evaluate that.
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?
Useful overview article on college rankings.
Railing against the rankings will not make them go away; competition, the need to benchmark, and indeed the inevitable logic of globalization make them a lasting part of the academic landscape of the 21st century. The challenge is to understand the nuances and the uses — and misuses — of the rankings.
Correct. It is critically important that Williams maintain and strengthen its #1 position in the US News Rankings. Suggestions for doing so? My favorites include:
1) Decreasing the number of large class sections. No class at Williams should have more than 19 students. This is a good idea pedagogically, and will help the rankings since US News penalizes colleges for having large classes.
2) Decrease the number of students. A Williams with 540 students in each class is a little too large. We are a small liberal arts college, not Dartmouth. Dropping back to 500 or so, would both improve various ratios (student-faculty, endowment-per-student) and significantly improve the quality of student life by allowing Williams to eliminate doubles.
No more lectures and singles for all who want them. Although these changes would be expensive, a Williams with them (and need-aware admissions for all applicants, not just internationals) would be better than a Williams without them (and need-blind admissions).
Another “best” list. Williams does not make the grade according to thebestcolleges.org, guess which college does?
Yes, you guessed it!
From last August:
Each year the splash it makes gets smaller, as more students, parents and even college administrators realize the truth about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings: It’s largely a beauty contest — one that bears little relation to the quality of the education kids will actually receive.
Indeed, the president of Williams College, which was named the No. 1 liberal arts college in the country this year by U.S. News, told Bloomberg News that the rankings were “meaningless.” That’s pretty tough talk, coming from a winner.
Cheap talk, actually.
The rest of the article is not worth reading because the author makes a living based on the theory that college rankings are a poor guide for decision making.
This just in from constant EphBlog addict Parent ’12:
Well, it looks as if “analytic types,” who can generate legitimate-sounding methodology,* attend to the ranking of “college brands.”
TrendTopper MediaBuzz utilizes a mathematical model that ‘normalizes’ the data collected from the Internet, social media, and blogosphere as well as the top 75,000 print and electronic media. The end result is a non-biased analytical tool that provides a gauge of relative values among various institutions, as well as measures of how that value changes over time.
Based on the quote, who knows what was actually done. The copy writer probably doesn’t know either. btw, for Universities, Chicago sits at 2nd, while Wisconsin is 1st, bumping Harvard down to 3rd. And, for Colleges, Williams is 3rd behind Davidson & Occidental.
Brandi et al:Do you know anyone who could successfully pitch a campaign that would bump Williams to 1st?
Thank you, Parent ’12 … More stuff from your eagle eyes needed!
(Further Ed note … As can be seen, I am trying to move the picture to the right without success. I want to do this to provide more variety for readers scrolling down the page. No luck yet! I will implore Ronit for guidance but only when he has a moment in his busy life.
Hmmmm, No Country for Old Men.)
A cold, crisp breeze; fresh snow; and access to skiing and snowboarding: Some students end their college search after finding a campus with these three elements. If winter weather tops your college wish list, then these schools are for you…
Winter at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., is a new experience for more than half of the students that hail from beyond the Snowbelt and the school works hard to welcome them. The Williams Outing Club offers free rentals and lessons in everything from skiing and ice climbing to snowshoeing and winter camping.
The Williams Facebook page has (as of December 16) 5587 fans (and counting), as compared to 4076 for Amherst. The new Eph Alum Facebook page (2643 fans) is likewise already more popular than its Amherst counterpart (1998 fans).* The Williams Athletics page is also very popular, with 1299 fans; there is no direct Amherst equivalent, and the closest approximation has only 206 fans . . . yet another way in which Williams College kicks Amherst in the butt.
Will Slack ’11 summarized other Williams pages on Facebook (and elsewhere) in this useful post. Hopefully, Williams’ soon-to-be-hired new webmeister will create a single, fully comprehensive, centralized directory of Williams-related sites on the web.
[By the way, for those interested in the two huge Williams spikes in the Google Trends chart in the link included above, they correspond to two events: College Gameday on campus in November, 2007, and the release of the Forbes rankings on August 12, 2010. Those are, by far, the two highest search days for Williams in Google history].
* a fair-minded observer would note that Williams does have more alumni than Amherst. I am not a fair-minded observer.
From the Office of Career Counseling:
As we are in the midst of fall recruiting here at the Williams College Office of Career Counseling it is a good time to remind you that we are happy to post your job and internship opportunities and schedule your on-campus recruiting events.
Williams is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions. This year Forbes and U.S. News and World Report have ranked Williams the #1 college in the nation and the #1 liberal arts college, respectively. Our students come from every part of the country and world, and from every imaginable background. They share formidable intellectual drive and pursue their varied interests with passion. It’s our goal to help you fill your job and internship opportunities with these bright and talented students.
Nothing wrong with this e-mail and I am always eager to help out my friends at OCC. It is also important for Williams to emphasize to non-alumni the high quality nature of our students. Lots of people, both inside and outside the US, would have trouble differentiating between, say, Williams and MCLA. Citing US News makes the distinction clear.
But doesn’t Williams have a (silly) holier-than-thou policy in which we promise not to mention rankings? If so, I am glad that OCC ignores it. Doing so helps out our students by increasing the quality and quantity of organizations willing to hire Ephs.
It is getting harder and harder to find a college ranking where Williams does NOT place first. The latest: Forbes (which seems to really love Williams, is there an Eph editor there or something?) ranked Williams first on its list of colleges which most enhance the earning potential of their graduates. Of course, like seemingly all college rankings, there are serious flaws here. Even without knowing the methodology, a geographical bias is apparent from the list, which is composed entirely of institutions whose graduates tend to end up in cities (Chicago, NYC, DC, Boston, SF, L.A.) with the highest per capita incomes. Even still, always nice to be number one (again!).
Well, at least according to the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” rankings of America’s greenest campuses. They sent out 900 surveys but only 162 responded, so 60 is fairly middling, though I suppose those responding were a self-selecting lot probably more committed than most to environmental sustainability.
Williams is the number 1 liberal arts college in the latest US News ranking. (Hat tip to Jeff.)
Williams College sits alone atop U.S. News’s ranking of liberal arts colleges.
The 27th annual U.S. News rankings, which are set to be released officially on Aug. 17, come less than a week after Forbes magazine released its third annual college rankings. Princeton, which was ranked first in Forbes’s inaugural rankings in 2008, took second place behind Williams this year, while Harvard took eighth.
Both U.S. News and Forbes consider graduation rates in formulating their rankings. U.S. News also considers criteria such as class size, average SAT scores and alumni giving rates. Forbes accounts for how many alumni are listed in the 2008 “Who’s Who in America” register, results from ratemyprofessors.com and national award rates for students and faculty. This year, U.S. News also instituted several changes in its ranking methodology, incorporating ratings by high school counselors and placing a greater emphasis on graduation rate.
We were first last year as well. My previous comments apply:
It is nice to see Williams at #1. Whatever complaints you may have about the methodology behind the ranking, there is no doubt that being #1 has a non-trivial impact on applications and yield, especially for international students. Williams should continue to, within reason, game the system by, for example, capping class sections at the magic cut-offs that US News uses.
There is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.
More details once the numbers are available.
UPDATE: It is official. Remember: Always believe content from EphBlog . . .
Will Slack rightly criticizes the methodology (but not the result) behind the Forbes #1 ranking for Williams:
The average salary of graduates is, in itself, not an accurate ranking of professional success within one’s field, but instead dependent on the fields that grads enter. A college with a lot of pre-Med and pre-finance students, like Williams, will do well here because of the kind of students who come here, not because we educate them especially better.
Presumably creating a finance major, as outlined by David and supported bycommenters, including arjun and 19 mph can help us maintain our strength in that aspect of the Forbes rankings in the future. But maybe we’re already gaming the rankings through those majors we’re excluding. Consider this list of the “20 Worst-Paying College Degrees in 2010“:
1. Child and Family Studies
2. Elementary Education
3. Social Work
4. Athletic Training
5. Culinary Arts
7. Paralegal Studies/Law
9. Recreation & Leisure
10. Special Education
12. Religious Studies
15. Interdisciplinary Studies
16. Interior Design
18. Graphic Design
20. Art History
Williams majors are pretty much absent from the top ten — and I’d bet given the examples of museum directors recently profiled in the New York Times, the Williams Art Mafia is doing its part to ensure that #20 isn’t dragging us down!
I did expect “Athletic Training” to finish a little better, though — isn’t that pretty much what every NFL player “majored in” during their “studies”?
This year, Williams ranks fourth among all small colleges and universities in terms of sending grads into the Peace Corps. This is particularly impressive when you consider that all of the schools Williams is tied with or ranked below have substantially larger student bodies. Williams ranked fifteenth on the same measure last year, and again, all but a few of the institutions ranked above Williams are far larger in size. I noted the conspicuous absence of both Amherst and Swarthmore from the top 25 each year … no big surprise from the progeny of noted war-monger Lord Jeffrey, but the institution with Quaker roots needs to seriously step it up. Read more about Williams and the Peace Corps here.
in environmental and social reporting among liberal arts colleges. Kinda random, but hey, first place sounds good …
From the Eagle:
Williams College has been named the sixth best value in private colleges in the U.S. by Princeton Review magazine.
Princeton Review used 30 factors in academics, cost and financial aid in ranking colleges. Cost factors included tuition, room and board, and required fees. Financial aid factors looked at the average amount of aid students received.
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania ranked first, and Williams’ rival, Amherst College, placed ninth on the list.
Including the cost of books, travel to and from home, and personal expenses, the estimated face-value cost of a Williams College education is just under $50,000 a year, or $200,000 for four years.
However, about 50 percent of the Class of 2012 received more than $9 million of Williams’ need-based aid in their first year, with financial aid packages averaging $37,000, and families picking up an average of $17,000 of the cost. And starting in 2008, the school no longer required students to take out loans; rather, it provided grants to them.
For the Class of 2013, those figures went up. About 53 percent receive Williams-based financial aid. The average aid package is $38,400 with the average family contribution for those receiving financial aid at $12,800.
“It’s nice to be regarded as one of the best in the country, but no methodology can support such numerical ranking,” said James Kolesar, a spokesman for Williams College. “It is nice though that it draws attention to financial aid at Williams and places like it.”
Washington Monthly has issued its 2009 college rankings. Williams does ok (3rd nationally, behind Amherst and Mt. Holyoke) but as a corrective to the primacy of US News and World Report the methodology WM uses is still pretty dumb. The grand irony in all of this is that the email I received from Washington Monthly carried the title “College Rankings that Aren’t Ridiculous”. How about letting others decide the merits of your work, folks?
We’ve had this argument in the past (I think this might be my post, though it is listed as authored by “administrator”), but I will reiterate some of my main objections: Giving ROTC and the Peace Corps such primacy in “service” seems pretty dumb. Using how well a college fares on predicting graduation rates seems like an easy way to game the system, especially when the graduation rates in the end are so high to begin with. The idea of “social mobility” does not seem all that well thought out. And research assessments seem too-heavily based on inputs rather than outputs.
I guess I’ll sum up: Most college ranking systems are flawed. This one no less so than others. Williams does fine, even when the metrics seem loaded against it, but, in sum my opinion can be reduced to: Blah.
Now that Williams’s #1 ranking by US News is official, and Forbes has concurred by putting Williams above all other liberal arts schools, I think a few caveats about these rankings are in order.
As has already been said, Forbes’s methodology is problematic in several ways. First, the weights of each of the components are rather arbitrary: it’s hard to say if debt levels are exactly 4 times as important as faculty awards, or how the other factors should relate. Second, some of the data sources are probably flawed: it’s probable that inclusion in Who’s who is based on variables beyond college quality, and that Payscale.com aren’t completely accurate. Third, as Dartmouth pointed out last year, data from sites like Rate my Professors is skewed because of the use of other sites like WSO’s Faktrak, and the idea that using these sites won’t encourage high ratings from students in order to boost their institution’s ranking.
US News’s data is also problematic in many ways, among them the idea that reported acceptance rates are accurate. Last year, in Morty and Will Dudley’s class on the Economics and Philosophy of Higher Education, I learned about a few tricks used by colleges, such as treating people who had half-applied as applicants, or waitlisting students who would have been accepted, then calling them up and offering admission solely to those planning to come. SAT scores are another kettle of fish, but you get my point.
Most important, though, is the false idea that Student X will have the best possible education at College #1, the second best at #2, and so on. While I am glad to have chosen Williams, my pleasure is affected strongly by qualitative factors such as the mountains, the relative isolation, and the small size. I knew I wanted those factors before I heard about Williams, but they are strong negatives for other Ephs.
Countless frosh arrive at Williams only to discover that they have trouble adjusting to our location, that they miss the city, and that Williams’s quality is irrelevant to its incompatibility. Some of my friends actively considered withdrawing for those exact reasons, going so far as to visit other schools. They’ve all decided to stay, but I don’t think attending a #1 ranked school is worth years of misery when happiness can be found somewhere else that’s almost as good. Put another ways, I’d much prefer to have a happy, mountains-loving classmate with a 1450 SAT than a unhappy, city-loving classmate with a 1550.
Do you agree?
In case you are interested in how rankings are covered by the television media. Note the apparent ignorance about financial aid and how much Williams costs to 50% of its students.
1) Official results will be out at midnight. In past years, leaked results have proven correct. I will wager that these are as well.
2) It is nice to see Williams at #1. Whatever complaints you may have about the methodology behind the ranking, there is no doubt that being #1 has a non-trivial impact on applications and yield, especially for international students. Williams should continue to, within reason, game the system by, for example, capping class sections at the magic cut-offs that US News uses.
3) The future looks good. Although the competition is tough, our most serious competitor is Amherst and they will face real headwinds given their financial constraints. Their endowment is in more trouble than ours. Their increase in enrollment will hurt the student:faculty ratio. These ranks are based on data from before the financial crash, so the Williams advantage over Amherst will only continue. Don’t be surprised if/when Amherst falls behind Swarthmore in a year or two. I also suspect that Middlebury’s recent (and deserved) rise may be in danger.
Welleseley is, in many ways, a very interesting competitor. But that is a post for another day.
4) It seems like a new feature is an explicit ranking of the quality of undergraduate teaching. Here are the top 10.
10. College of Wooster
It will be interesting to read about the methodology behind this result. Also, the peer assessments: “Williams is 4.7, Amherst is 4.6, Swarthmore and Wellesley are 4.5, Middleburry and Bowdoin are 4.3, Pomona, Carleton, Davidson and a few others are 4.2. Haverford and Claremont McKenna are 4.0.”
5) As I mention each year, there is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.
UPDATE: It is official!
In its second annual college ranking list, Forbes Magazine ranked Williams #4, ahead of Harvard (#5), Yale (#9) and Amherst (#8). Here is how the Forbes rankings are calculated, according to an article on the Forbes web site:
To our way of thinking, a good college is one that meets student needs. While some college rankings are based partly on school reputation as evaluated by college administrators and on the amount of money spent, we focus on things which directly concern incoming students: Will my courses be interesting and rewarding? Will I get a good job after I graduate? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree?
To answer these questions, the staff at CCAP gathered data from a variety of sources. They based 25% of the rankings on 4 million student evaluations of courses and instructors, as recorded on the Web site RateMyProfessors.com. Another 25% is based on post-graduate success, equally determined by enrollment-adjusted entries in Who’s Who in America, and by a new metric, the average salaries of graduates reported by Payscale.com. An additional 20% is based on the estimated average student debt after four years. One-sixth of the rankings are based on four-year college graduation rates–half of that is the actual graduation rate, the other half the gap between the average rate and a predicted rate based on characteristics of the school. The last component is based on the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes.
When I read the readers’ comments about Williams, I was very impressed to see a Princeton grad conceding Williams’ superiority:
Posted by MathTrader | 08/13/09 12:53 PM EDT
One more misconception that I’d like to point out: the “elitist jock school that’s easier to get into than the Ivies.” Read: “New England Safety School.”
The elitism comment is off by about 20 years. Like every other school in the North East, Williams used to be a country club school. Like every other top school, that’s not really even an argument these days. Every well respected school has a very diverse student body (I know Williams takes a higher proportion of Questbridge minority scholars than almost any other participant school), and about 50% of students on full financial aid. Get real.
Yes Williams has a large proportion of student athletes, but there’s a big difference between “football meathead” and “insanely disciplined Division 3 Crew/Track athlete.” From what I can tell, so many Williams kids play sports because their motivated personality, which also led to their academic success, influences their extracurricular discipline.
The best one is admissions. I’ll be honest, I was on the Williams waiting list after getting into H/P/Y regular decision. The acceptance rate is misleading until you consider how self selected the Williams applicant pool must be. No one applies to Williams for the name, they apply because they did their research and want an unmatched undergraduate challenge that’s hidden in the middle of the mountains. In short, they want to be unparalleled thinkers, not Ivy League graduates.
As my name suggests, I’m a trader with an advanced degree in Math. Without fail, a Williams grad has been everywhere I’ve studied or worked. In every case, they’ve been the person of most envy and respect for their knowledge, ability to learn, and drive. When we discussed this ranking yesterday at work, one of the other traders on my algorithmic desk looked up and said “I’m pretty convinced that Williams(/Amherst) is the only school that’s actually worth the respect it gets.” Even having turned it down, I gotta agree (but still..go Pri
Forbes has gotten into the college ranking business, and this year marks their second attempt at the feat. Though I’m personally of the opinion that rankings are foolish, and that a best-match school doesn’t correlate to a ranking, we’re ranked well enough that I’m publishing them anyway. We’re in at #4, behind West Point, Princeton, and CalTech, and 4 spots in front of Amherst. Methodology is here and the other articles can be found here.
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