Swat on Rankings: “Participation without Promotion”

US News

Late Friday afternoon, Al Bloom joined the presidents of eighteen other liberal arts colleges in releasing a statement outlining the colleges’ positions on college rankings. The U.S. News & World Report rankings are those with the highest profile, and all but one of the colleges signing Friday’s letter are currently ranked in the top twenty-five. Swarthmore is currently ranked third after Amherst and Williams.

The letter expresses concern “about the inevitable biases in any single ranking formula… and the way in which rankings can contribute to [the admissions] frenzy” but continues “we recognize that no degree of protest may make them soon disappear… [we hope] further discussion will help shape them in ways that will press us to move in ever more socially and educationally useful directions.”

Presidents who signed the letter pledged to make the data used in rankings available on their websites (Swarthmore already posts the Common Data Set, which includes information about admissions, financial aid, and graduation rates) and also not to publicize rankings in their promotional material.

The top-tier schools have thus staked out a more moderate position than the sixty-four that have signed on to another statement, this one appearing last May. The first statement put forward a stronger criticism of the rankings and contained not only a pledge to make information more accessible, but also a pledge to stop filling out the U.S. News “reputational” survey, which attempts to gauge a school’s reputation among its peers but which has been criticized for being merely a reflection of gossip.

Jim Bock ’90, Dean of Admissions, was heavily involved in the discussions at Swarthmore about the statement. He said, “I feel that ratings are here to stay, but we are committed to providing more and better information and access for families and students… [students] need to be aware of the fact that these facts and figures are accurate but that they are only one piece of the puzzle.”

Bock hopes that the letter will be the first step towards a more transparent college ranking system. U.S. News currently has a ranking formula that changes yearly and that is not clearly specified in its materials. U.S. News isn’t going to stop ranking colleges any time soon, as the college rankings issue is a perennial best-seller, so Bock explained that Swarthmore wanted to work within the system for change and keep filling out the reputational survey. “If you continue to participate you have a voice at the table.”

The schools that signed the letter have also committed to drawing up a different rankings system in conjunction with the National Association of Indepedent Colleges and Universities. “It’s by an independent organization,” explained Bock, “not one trying to sell magazines, so it’ll be more inclusive of information and there will be more data points available.”

The second part of the committment was not to publicize the rankings, hence the “participation without promotion.” Bock explains that “historically we have not done a lot… we’ve never purchased products from the ratings companies.” Although some of the current admissions material makes reference to being a “top-ranked college,” Bock said, “we don’t include the U.S. News ranking.”

The commitment also applies to rankings in other publications. For example, some admissions materials currently publicize the fact that we were ranked in the top 10 schools for medical, law, and business graduate placement by the Wall Street Journal. In future print runs of those materials, this statistic and other rankings will disappear.

How much do rankings actually matter? Bock said that in his experience, U.S. News rankings “matter less for a student’s decision [of where to attend] than just with putting us on the list… if you haven’t visited yet, [the ranking] can be a reason to visit.”

Rankings are also especially important for attracting international students, who may not have many other ways of finding out about small American colleges. “Almost to a student,” says Bock, “we ask ‘How’d you find us?’ and it’s the U.S. News rankings.”

In an informal survey of 20 freshmen, 16 said that they were aware of Swarthmore’s #3 rank before applying. 5 of these 16 said that it affected their decision to apply and/or attend.

When asked if the decision to continue participating in the U.S. News survey was partially one of self-interest, Bock said, “from a marketing standpoint, they work for us, that’s true and I’m comfortable saying that.” That said, “they are incomplete at best and just a starting point… my hope is that with conversation and open dialogue, we can make a better system of rankings, whether with U.S. News or somewhere else.”

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