The College moved up to second place in this year’s U.S. News and World Report rankings, tying with Swarthmore College. Amherst College retained its first place ranking. The College also made a strong showing in The Princeton Review’s annual rating of America’s best colleges.
According to the magazine, the rankings are based on “quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality.” The most heavily weighted category is peer assessment, based on ratings by college presidents and admissions officials of fellow schools. Other important factors include graduation and retention rates, faculty resources and student selectivity.
Despite attempts at objectivity, the rankings are met with skepticism by many authorities within the College. Data for the rankings is self-reported, which allows individual colleges to choose how to report their own information. “Acceptance rates can be very misleading sometimes,” Richard Nesbitt, director of admission, said.
Pre-applications are one source of controversy in reporting these rates of this statistic. According to Nesbitt, some schools count all that are filed as full applications when determining selectivity, even if students never follow through because they have been accepted early at other schools. He states that within the top ten liberal arts schools, this procedure may account for up to ten percent of a school’s admittance rate.
Additionally, some colleges have different admissions schedules and students who begin attending the school in the spring may not be included as admits in the reported acceptance rate. The system “takes people at their word, Nesbitt said. “Sometimes it doesn’t stop to ask the smaller questions.”
Yet, for all the doubts of the accuracy of the ranking methodology, the College’s consistent placement at the top of the charts has had its benefits. “Williams has gained some name recognition from the rankings that it didn’t have 15 years ago,” Nesbitt said. “It opens eyes to liberal arts schools [of] students who might’ve only looked at universities.” The College has been in the top three schools since the ratings began in 1983, and has reached number one on four occasions.
While the rankings probably do not have much of an effect on yield, the rankings can be a good source for students beginning their college search. “Indeed, I think it would be a sad commentary on the individual student if these rankings played a major role in their ultimate choice of where they attended college,” Dean Roseman said.
Students and other officials also downplay the importance of the rankings in perception of the college. “Some folks make lots of money with what amounts to pretty dumb popularity contests,” President Schapiro said. “I think there is something about the Williams experience that is very hard to quantify but is explained by the mixture of spectacular students, a very dedicated and talented faculty and staff, and the remoteness of the Purple Valley.”
Mary Catherine Blanton ’06 shared Schapiro’s sentiments. “The thing that was most attractive about Williams had nothing to do with numbers; it was a feeling I got when I was on campus.”
As for the College’s position behind Amherst in the rankings (14 out of 18 years), Nesbitt said it was due to the difference in size of the colleges. “They’re 20 percent smaller than us and receive the same number of applications; therefore, they have to be more selective,” he said. With an incoming class of about 400, they have more than 100 fewer first-years than Williams. Nesbitt said that Amherst also “caps more classes than we do. They’re smaller, but kids get shut out of classes more often.”
Still, Nesbitt said that the College’s move up on Swarthmore is a “big jump,” and Amherst can “feel our hot breath and us nipping at their heels.”
In addition to the U.S. News rankings, the College also received a new summary from The Princeton Review, which recently released its annual college guide. Composed mostly of profiles of the 345 selected institutions, the guide also features 63 top-20 rankings. The College appeared in the top 20 of five categories, ranking 14 in “Best overall academic experience for undergrads,” 18 in “Professors get high marks,” 15 in “The toughest to get into,” six in “Best quality of life” and 17 in schools populated by “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians.”
Published since 1992, the guide is the only national college guide to report rankings based solely on student surveys, officials at The Princeton Review said. The surveys ask students 70 questions about their own school’s academics, campus life and student body, as well as their study habits, political feelings, and opinions. The surveys used in the current edition were completed by approximately 300 students at each school in the 1999-2000, 2000-2001 or 2001-2002 school years.
“We compile ranking lists in many categories â€“ not just one â€“ based on what students at the schools tell us about their campus experiences,” Robert Franek, editorial director at The Princeton Review, said. Though the Review maintains the rankings reflect a consensus among all students, Nesbitt said he disagrees. “One person says something and boom, it’s the label,” he said.
According to Nesbitt, guidebooks such as that published by The Princeton Review can have a major impact on student’s opinions about certain schools, which is unfortunate because accuracy can easily be traded for splashy headlines. “It’s hard to find a guidebook with a good balanced description,” he said. “They’re trying to sell books and make one place look different than another. The more pigeonholing, the better [for the Review].”