The University of Richmond fell from 25th to 30th on the U.S. News & World Report list of best national liberal arts colleges in the fall, but the value of these rankings has been disputed.
“I wouldn’t make a big deal about this drop,” said Jim Monks, a Richmond economics professor who has written extensively on higher education. “This is not a dramatic change.”
Rankings often fluctuate from year to year, and ranking organizations, such as U.S. News, ensure this happens so they can keep selling magazines, Monks said. “There’s a lot of annual noise in these rankings,” he said, referring to the variability of yearly college rankings.
The New York Times’ Joe Nocera wrote in 2012 that, “U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly. Or rather, it would be if it weren’t so pernicious.”
Beyond annual differences, there are some more concrete reasons for Richmond’s recent drop in rank. There was a slump in retention for the freshman classes entering in 2005 and 2006 because of general dissatisfaction among faculty and students caused in part by a $7,000 increase in tuition, said Patty Murphy, director of institutional effectiveness.
That lower retention will have an impact on the four-year average that U.S. News takes into account when calculating the retention portion of its ranking for this year and next year. This is because the federal government defines on-time graduation as six years rather than four.
Richmond, a Division I sports school, struggles to match the retention rates of many of its Division III counterparts because Division I athletes are more likely to transfer to further their sports careers, Murphy said.
Richmond is also at a competitive disadvantage when compared to schools that don’t require students to submit SAT scores during the application process because students who choose not to submit them tend to have lower SAT scores to begin with, Murphy said. U.S. News’ emphasis on standardized test scores has probably caused some of these schools to go test-optional, she said.
Retention rates account for 22.5 percent of the U.S. News ranking and will cause one more year of lower retention averages and therefore lower rank. “It’s not visible yet, but we’re recovering,” Murphy said.
Although these changes in rank can result from small variations in retention statistics and yearly fluctuations, the U.S. News ranking does have a real impact on admissions decisions, Monks said.
It also “allows for a certain level of advertising,” said Gil Villanueva, dean of admission.
According to a paper co-written by Monks and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, “a less favorable rank leads an institution to accept a greater percentage of its applicants, a smaller percentage of its admitted applicants matriculate, and the resulting entering class is of lower quality as measured by its average SAT scores.”
Although the magnitude of this statistical significance is small, administrators feel pressure to improve these rankings, Monks said.
“In the grand scheme of things, this drop in rank won’t be keeping us from attracting great and diverse students,” Villanueva said.
The rankings tend to have more influence on families from wealthy suburban areas, Villanueva said. For University President Edward Ayers, “it’s most important that we’re in the right category,” he said, referring to the best national liberal arts college rankings.
Richmond used to be ranked first in the U.S. News’ category of best regional colleges in the South, but in 2005, the university switched lists to the best liberal arts college ranking. Many institutions of higher education believe students use rankings to discover the schools they want to look at, not necessarily to make their final decision, Murphy said.
“I personally think they’re valuable but limited in their usefulness,” Murphy said, referring to the U.S. News rankings. “It’s human nature to rank.”
Students seem to have varying perspectives on these rankings. “They weren’t the be-all, end-all when it came to my college decision, but they played a role,” sophomore Ryan Gabriele said.
Many students seem more concerned with the ranking of specific programs within the university. For freshman Lott Gwin, the rank of the business school was more important because that was his area of interest, he said.
Other students, such as freshman Sarah Laskowitz, were less concerned about the rankings and more concerned with the beauty of the campus and it’s proximity to her home, she said.
Freshman Olivia Hennessey said she wasn’t aware of the exact ranking, but knew that Richmond was in the top 50.
Some administrators echo these students' sentiments. “I’m not a fan of categorizing colleges and universities by tier,” Villanueva said. “I wish they would measure student success.”
U.S. News has attempted to address this problem by focusing on outcomes rather than inputs.
“It’s part of a national conversation about higher education,” said Bob Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News. “When we started, we didn’t have the same outcome metrics we have today.”
Still, the peer assessment survey – which university presidents, provosts and admissions directors fill out about other schools – is the largest, single input component and accounts for 22.5 percent of the ranking, according to information released by U.S. News . “I think almost everybody at every institution would get rid of the peer assessment,” Murphy said. “It’s an opinion survey.”
There are probably schools that are strong but not recognized and other schools with strong reputations that are not backed up by data, Morse said. “We’re saying that reputation should mean something to prospective students and to the general public.”
The peer assessment survey is not the only measure used by U.S. News that has received recent criticism. Many would also get rid of the class rank portion of the U.S. News ranking because many high schools no longer report class rank, Murphy said. Of the entering first-year students at Richmond, only 25 percent had high school class rank reported, she said.
Reporting high school rank has become less prevalent recently, and therefore is less useful when measuring the caliber of students admitted to a college. “Maybe we need to consider reducing the weight even more,” Morse said, referring to how U.S. News already reduced the weight of high school class rank two years ago.
College rankings don’t only have an effect on college admission but also on the profile of a school and the job prospects of its students.
“These college rankings can raise the visibility and profile of a small school like ours,” said Ashleigh Brock, associate director of career services at Richmond. “Recruiters also use rankings, in part, when considering the schools to come and recruit at.”
Average alumni giving rate is used by U.S. News to measure “student satisfaction as a proxy,” Morse said. It’s supposed to quantify “the act of giving” versus how much is actually given, he said.
If the annual giving rate was calculated by finding the average gift, large donations would have an outsized impact on the giving rate and would not paint an accurate picture of “the nature of giving at the school,” Morse said. “We would definitely be criticized for favoring schools with wealthy alumni.”
U.S. News issued its first college rankings in 1983 by surveying university presidents. Over time, U.S. News added different metrics such as SAT and ACT scores, alumni giving rates and class sizes.
“The problem is that these weights are arbitrary and set, so what might make a school great for one student might not be the best for another student,” Monks said. “Everyone has different personal preferences.”
It’s more important to have the best value and the happiest students, Villanueva said. Richmond is ranked no. 14 for "great schools at great prices" among national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and is one of the "25 Happiest Schools" ranked by Newsweek.
“They don’t even look at the things we care about most,” Ayers said. “There’s no measure of diversity or student engagement."
“The real ratings come from the students who chose to spend part of their lives here. By all those metrics, we’re really flourishing.”
Contact reporter Eamon O'Keefe at firstname.lastname@example.org