Williams leaps past Amherst in latest Us News rankings

Prospective members of the Class of 2008 now have one more reason to look at the College.

In its Aug. 22 edition, U.S. News and World Report gave the College the highest ranking among national liberal arts colleges. The Princeton Review also gave Williams high accolades in several categories in its Best 351 College Rankings.

The College’s perfect score in the U.S. News poll places it ahead of Amherst, which held the coveted position in last year’s edition.

Each year, U.S. News ranks the nation’s top schools through an elaborate system of weighting criteria. The magazine considers factors such as retention rates, faculty resources, student selectivity and financial resources. The most heavily weighted is peer assessment, where top administrators such as presidents, provosts and deans of the faculty evaluate the performance and dedication of fellow faculty members at each school.

Richard Nesbitt, director of Admissions credits the College’s broad “strategic plan” as the basis for its outstanding performance in such polls. Adopted in 2000, the strategy is responsible for an increase of faculty members, the development of additional interdisciplinary courses and perhaps most notably, the expansion of the College’s distinctive tutorial program.

The tutorial program “really sets us apart from other colleges,” Nesbitt said.

Since 1991, the College has tied for first with Amherst in U.S. News’s Academic Reputation Poll, and was awarded the same spot in this year’s edition.

But while the College has always performed strongly in college ranking polls, it occasionally fell behind other schools in the area of faculty resources. As a result, the administration has been seeking to reduce class size and faculty workload and increase the number of tutorials, making them more available to students, especially sophomores.

According to Nesbitt, it is the “close intellectual interaction” provided by the tutorial system that has recently given the College the advantage over its peer institutions.

President Schapiro agreed. “It is clear that it was this reduction in class size that moved us from number three to number two and now to number one,” he said.

Yet, class size is only one factor taken into account in the poll, and, as Nesbitt points out, it is extremely difficult to find an objective and accurate method of comparing different schools. “To a certain extent, it’s kind of a beauty contest,” he said. “I think they try to do as well as they can to have some kind of measurable data, but that being said, I think it’s a very hard thing to do.”

Schapiro, who has been largely hesitant to comment on the rankings, spoke briefly to National Public Radio about the methodology used by U.S. News: “When I awoke yesterday at number two, I thought the methodology was deeply flawed, but upon waking up today at number one, I’ve been rethinking things.”

“We would never do anything just to look better in a magazine, but when we improve this place on our own terms and they recognize it by elevating our ranking, we are not about to turn it down,” he said.

And according to Nesbitt, the numbers in a poll can only give prospective students a limited view of any college. “There isn’t one place that is the perfect place for everybody. Colleges are different. Not every student would do well at Williams,” he said.

Yet, regardless of any doubts surrounding the ranking process, Schapiro and Nesbitt both see the rewards of holding the number one spot in this widely-published report. This year, the College received a record number of applicants to the Class of 2007. Nesbitt expects that the rankings may boost that number even higher for the Class of 2008.

“Admissions data suggest that shining a spotlight on a great school leads to greater interest on behalf of prospective students and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another increase in the size of the applicant pool,” Schapiro said.  At the same time, he noted that the College “shattered [its] all-time applicant record during the past admissions cycle and [is] already one of the most selective colleges in the country.”

Nesbitt also said that the College will continue to pursue its long-term goals with the principal aim of improving the overall quality of education. “Your motivation shouldn’t be to be able to say you’re number one in a poll, your motivation should be to be able to provide the best possible undergraduate experience,” he said.

“We didn’t do this to become number one – we’re doing it because this is what a leading liberal arts college should do,” he said.

Schapiro is also accepting the honors with a grain of salt. “Most people have long known that Williams is as good as it gets in terms of undergraduate education. Being ranked number one is nice, but we are not about to become complacent.”

“There is much left to do and as we move forward in implementing our classroom and student life initiatives, I fully expect that this place will become even better in the years to come.”