Since the mid-1980s, U.S. News & World Report has tried to do for higher education what Consumer Reports has long done for appliances: provide a numerical ranking that supposedly measures excellence. Applicants by the scores look to the newsmagazine for guidance while educators cringe at the notion that the relative values of an education can be boiled down to hard numbers.
The annual U.S. News college rankings have been a mixed blessing at Oberlin. The magazine has established what most Oberlinians believe: that we are one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation. Yet because the rankings are based on factors judged significant by a weekly magazine rather than those valued by Oberlin, they may create a false impression that Oberlin has declined in quality or is inferior to colleges that have different philosophies.
No one, including the magazine itself, argues that applicants should make decisions on what is best for them based on a numerical ranking. Still, with many high school students and their families relying on the magazine to help them choose from a wide variety of college options, it’s time to take a closer look at where Oberlin stands.
For a dozen years, Oberlin has appeared in the top 25 among the nation’s 215 liberal arts colleges, by U.S. News’ reckoning. Oberlin is currently listed as number 22, up from number 23 in 2005. That is very respectable for a college that is neither the nation’s wealthiest (a major factor in the magazine’s list) nor in the most desirable location for students preferring the east or west coasts.
Yet one of the most frequent concerns expressed by Oberlin alumni is a nagging sense that certain aspects of the institution are declining. Beyond anecdotal evidence, such as a favorite professor’s departure or a sports team’s bad fortunes, some alums cite the fact that Oberlin has fallen in the magazine’s rankings since the 1980s.
That raises a fundamental issue about the rankings as they have evolved. When the feature began in 1983, it was based solely on a nationwide survey of educators. The assumption was that college presidents would have the most accurate insight into the quality of other institutions. Because no mathematical calculation can capture the worth of a professor’s lecture or a research project, for example, the idea was that educators would have the best overall knowledge of other campuses.
Oberlin has always ranked especially well in this “peer assessment” category, which today accounts for just one-fourth of the total score. In 1989, when our overall ranking among liberal arts colleges was ninth, we were fourth in peer assessment and eighth in “selectivity”—a basic measure of our entering class based largely on standardized test scores and high school class ranks. The 2006 U.S. News rankings listed Oberlin 11th in peer assessment and 20th in selectivity—a slight erosion, but not a major change. Since the late 1980s, Oberlin has rated 13th or better in the magazine’s survey of all national liberal arts college presidents, chief admissions officers, and chief academic officers.
So why did Oberlin move from number 9 to number 22 in the overall list? The basic answer lies in the magazine’s changing methodologies. In 1989, U.S. News determined that data beyond educators’ opinions and basic admissions statistics should be used as indicators of a college’s standing. Various categories were added—and then altered over the years—so that peer assessment and admissions data became just 40 percent of the total score. Added to the mix were two crucial categories that spelled some trouble for Oberlin: “graduation/retention rates” and “faculty resources.”
The magazine uses “one-size-fits-all” indicators, says Oberlin President Nancy S. Dye, not taking into account colleges’ “different sizes and somewhat different missions.”
Retention and faculty resources—which, when combined, today constitute 45 percent of the total score—explain most of why Oberlin fell in the rankings after 1989. While Oberlin’s overall rank has averaged 21 since 1989, it averages 34 in faculty resources and 42 (but improving) in retention.
The magazine regards retention as a proxy for student satisfaction. The assumption is that most students who drop out or fail to graduate within six years must be dissatisfied with their college in some way, whether the reason is educational, social, financial, or a combination.
What this measure ignores is that for as long as anyone on campus can remember, Oberlin, in comparison to its peer schools, has attracted more “free spirits” or “seekers” who arrive without a firm idea of how they want to make use of their liberal arts experience. Every year, about 100 students leave Oberlin for another kind of education, to travel abroad, or for any number of other pursuits. These departures may have nothing to do with a dislike of Oberlin, but they count against Oberlin in the U.S. News rankings.
To the extent that student departures do reflect problems with the Oberlin experience, the College is continually working to improve student life across the board. The process began in earnest nearly a decade ago, and 1999 was declared a “year of retention” by Dye when a task force was formed to study College policies that may have contributed to students’ leaving.
In 2002, the president created the Office of the Dean of Studies to make changes, some of them suggested by a consulting firm that urged a focus “not on preventing withdrawals, but on ensuring student success and satisfaction.” Important goals included improving access to classes, the advising system, and freshman orientation.
In general, College staff members today keep much closer track of students’ progress to graduation, says Dean of Studies Kathryn Stuart. She says the College has worked to establish a “comprehensive system of student advising and easier access to classes,” including adding first-year seminars, additional sections of popular courses, and two new majors—cinema studies and comparative American studies. Arabic and advanced Chinese are among new course offerings. Advising for new students was upgraded so that faculty members could help students more on their individual educational goals and spend less time on procedural issues.
Another major change, in the fall of 2004, was a new grading system that eliminated the “no entry” option, a system that had made not completing classes so easy that “no entries” amounted to 7.5 percent of all grades. The option was criticized for delaying student progress to graduation and for creating many empty seats in classrooms. The College also made it less simple for students to obtain “emergency incompletes,” which contributed to failures to graduate.
While the retention efforts were not aimed at the U.S. News rankings, they are likely to have some impact. Oberlin was 45th among liberal arts colleges in the retention category in 2004 but had risen to 40th in the last survey, and it may go higher. (Because any graduation within six years of enrollment is counted, policy changes are slow to show an impact in the rankings.) Oberlin’s six-year graduation figure, which has ranged from 76 percent to 83 percent in recent years, hit an all-time recent high of 85 percent in May 2006.
Despite Oberlin’s concentration on improving students’ educational experiences, it does not seem likely that the College will attract the same kinds of students that give U.S. News leaders Williams and Amherst a 97 percent freshman retention rate (compared with Oberlin’s 91 percent). Those few percentage points go a long way toward explaining why a few schools exceed Oberlin’s overall ranking.
The other major reason why Oberlin ranks lower overall in U.S. News than its peer assessment rating suggests is the magazine’s faculty resources category, which is made up of six components. Most important are faculty salaries and the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students.
Dye acknowledges that “we have been lagging for many years on faculty salaries; it continues to be an issue for Oberlin.” The average faculty compensation in a recent year was a little under $80,000 at Oberlin, compared with about $96,000 at Swarthmore and $94,000 at Williams, two colleges that outrank Oberlin in this category. This reflects, in part, fewer resources available to Oberlin via its endowment.
As for class size, Oberlin is very close to most of its competitors, with some 68 percent of classes enrolling under 20 students in the last year. With one exception, higher-ranked schools reported no more than 75 percent of such classes, and 10 reported a lower percentage.
In the category of student selectivity, 15 percent of the total score, Oberlin ranks 20th among liberal arts colleges. This reflects a much better admissions picture than in the late 1990s, when Oberlin sank to 42nd place in this category. As recently as 1994, the College of Arts and Sciences was admitting 72 percent of applicants. That figure shrunk to 37 percent last year, meaning that Oberlin was able to be far more selective. The “yield” of admitted students who decided to enroll rose from 26 to 31 percent over the same period.
Many publications rate colleges. Among them:
In the last two remaining categories—“financial resources” and “alumni donor participation”—Oberlin ranks lower than its overall place. Financial resources accounts for 10 percent of the total, while donor participation accounts for 5 percent.
Financial resources is largely related to expenditures per student; Oberlin ranks 28th. With Oberlin’s tuition roughly the same as its competitors, the differences largely reflect colleges’ endowments. While Oberlin’s endowment has grown in the last decade to a healthy $700 million, its relatively large size as a liberal arts college—about 2,800 students—means that spendable funds are spread thinner. By contrast, Bowdoin College in Maine has an endowment of about $580 million—far below Oberlin’s, but with a student body of just 1,666, endowment income goes further.
U.S. News uses alumni giving as an indicator of graduates’ satisfaction with their educations. The rankings reflect the percentage of alumni solicited who donate in any given year. At Oberlin, where the alumni participation rate hovers around 36 percent, the College has seen a steady drop in its U.S. News ranking in that category over the past decade—from 25th to 66th—even though annual giving dollar amounts are setting new records. Remember, it’s the percentage of donors that counts.
This is one category in which graduates can help the College financially and perhaps also affect the rankings. Wendell P. Russell Jr. ’71 president of the Alumni Association, says that Oberlin’s ranking for alumni giving “is nothing to be proud of.
“Oberlin alumni have every reason to be proud of their school,” he says. “Its financial needs to maintain academic and artistic excellence and diversity are great. I’m confident that with enhanced communication about the wonderful things that happen here, alumni will positively respond and we will see our ranking improve.”
To help develop a stronger culture of giving, the Alumni Association created a new development committee focused on teaching alumni about the importance of giving. Also, the Development Office is working to get each year’s graduation class more engaged in fundraising. At commencement last year, for example, Oberlin replaced what had been an informal picnic for seniors with a formal dinner emphasizing the importance of helping the College financially. Dye addressed the graduates, as did Victor Hymes ’79, founder and CEO of an investment management company and chair of the Board of Trustees’ investment committee, and Ernest Iseminger, vice president of development and alumni affairs.
Other efforts are also in the works. “As many other colleges have done, we’ve analyzed our solicitable alumni base to see how it compares to peer schools,” says Iseminger. As a result, administrative changes are being made to improve the College’s reporting to the magazine. Alumni who attend reunions, for example, can claim part of their registration fee as a tax-deductible donation. In doing so, Oberlin gains donors.
Alumni-giving rates have become a sticky business for some colleges. Fudging the numbers to boost rates is not uncommon, and several schools do so openly. The Wall Street Journal in March reported that Albion College in Michigan doctored its alumni-giving rates by counting one-time gifts from college seniors as lesser amounts spread over five years. Other schools freely admit to not looking for their lost alumni: a smaller solicitable pool often translates to a higher percentage of donors.
But Oberlin’s leaders say that while U.S. News reflects several areas where the College is working to make improvements, Oberlin will not change its basic philosophy and operating procedures to influence its rank.
For example, the magazine does not count Oberlin’s spending on financial aid as a specific factor in the rankings. That’s because colleges could manipulate the number by setting tuition artificially high and attributing an exaggerated amount of spending to financial aid. Dye says that historically Oberlin has spent more per student on financial aid (particularly from the unrestricted portion of its operating budget) than have most other colleges on the U.S. News list. Similarly, Oberlin gets no specific credit for attracting students of color (137 new students of color entered last fall, with more expected in 2007). “Our efforts to make undergraduate education accessible and our commitment to diversity is expensive and time-consuming, but it doesn’t show up in the U.S. News rankings,” says College Provost Alfred MacKay.
Also not counted by the magazine are Oberlin’s unique physical assets, such as the large number of instruments in the Conservatory, valuable paintings in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and vast library holdings. Theoretically, Oberlin could sell it all and markedly increase the endowment’s value (and Oberlin’s rank in U.S. News), but such a move would be unthinkable in an institution where education in the arts is so important. “Oberlin is an institution that understands its values and is not going to change them to accommodate the metrics that a national magazine puts together,” says Dye.
No one should take the rankings too literally, says Oberlin’s president. All of the colleges atop the U.S. News list are “extraordinary institutions,” she says, and the minuscule numbers that separate them should assure alumni, parents, and prospective students that Oberlin is firmly situated in the top ranks of a liberal arts education. l
Ted Gest was a writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report from 1977 to 2001. He is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, based in Washington, D.C., and affiliated with the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.