e know Skidmore is a top-tier school. We are surrounded by evidence of our success: outstanding classroom teaching, faculty-student collaborations, a thriving Honors Forum, admissions selectivity and talented students, alumni achievement, and high praise from our peers.
So why do we care how U.S. News and World Report ranks us? Certainly it’s good that Skidmore’s rank among the national-level liberal arts colleges is now 42, up from 47 last year, especially since millions of students and parents use the rankings as a guide in their college search and as validation of their choices. It’s hard for some students and families to choose a lower-ranked institution over a higher, even if both the objective measures and the “fit” indicate that the lower-ranked school would be a better choice.
And yet I have mixed feelings about publicizing rankings that I believe are flawed and that threaten to distort the educational decision-making of students and institutions. At the least I wish people would use the rankings as sensibly as they use a restaurant review or Consumer Reports. You don’t go to the four-star French restaurant across town if you’re looking for Thai food in your neighborhood, and you don’t get the top-rated toaster if your favorite English muffins won’t fit. Instead, you use consumer guides to choose the place or product that best fits your needs according to your criteria.
As for calculating college quality, I’d like to see more focus placed on the “distance traveled” by students during college: How do they develop in skills and understanding, and how well do they use the opportunities and resources the college provides? I am concerned that U.S. News’s system measures mostly “inputs” or offerings, rather than results, a process one former U.S. News research director compared to “measuring the quality of a restaurant by calculating how much it paid for silverware and food: not completely useless, but pretty far from ideal” (see “Broken Ranks,” Washington Monthly, September 2001).
In the portions of the rankings that do attempt to measure “added value,” Skidmore scores very well. For example, U.S. News predicts a graduation rate based on entering students’ test scores and school characteristics (like the amount spent per student) and then compares that to the actual graduation rate. At a score of +8 here, Skidmore exceeds expectations; indeed, we outperform the top eighteen schools on the list. This is no surprise to us: it’s one more indication of how well we stretch our relatively modest resources and focus them on educational quality. Unfortunately this measure accounts for just 5 percent of the overall ranking.
A full 25 percent of each school’s rating is based on a score called “academic reputation,” derived by asking presidents and deans at other liberal arts colleges what they think of the school’s quality of education, on a 1-5 scale. This year Skidmore’s score in this category went from 3.2 to 3.5, which drove much of our ascent in the general rankings. That’s good, whether it reflects our faculty’s teaching excellence or research visibility, our graduates’ achievements, or simply a general sense that better students and faculty are choosing to come here. But I’m disappointed that so much of the ranking hinges on this kind of popularity contest. It is by its very nature a lagging indicator that cannot do justice to a school making rapid strides, like Skidmore. And it has spawned a new industry in mailings of glossy programs and fancy reports designed to impress the presidents and deans who answer U.S. News’s “reputation” surveys.
Most troublesome is the temptation for colleges to set educational priorities based on the rankings rather than on their own sense of mission. When they consider changes in class size, admissions criteria, or faculty hiring, schools too often worry, “How will that affect our rankings?” Already some schools have stopped requiring SAT scores from applicants, in part for valid educational reasons, but also because they know they need to report scores only from students who supply them (and it’s usually the weakest scores that drop out of the calculation when SATs aren’t required).
Another danger of over-reliance on such rankings is that it creates pressures toward sameness, a terrible thing in a universe that glories in diversity. By striving for some artificial golden mean, schools tend toward homogenization, a pernicious process that saps colleges of their uniqueness and vitality and reduces the variety available to students seeking a school suited to their particular needs. When I was interviewed by students during the presidential search process, I promised I would never do anything just for the sake of a ranking in a college guide. I’ve stuck by that pledge, but I’m sorry to see how often the question arises.
By the way, one completely legitimate way to affect future rankings, without compromising educational values, is in the purview of alumni. U.S. News counts donation rates as a measure of alumni satisfaction. Here Skidmore’s rating was 42, based on a two-year average of 41 percent participation in alumni giving. This year’s 44 percent giving rate will help bring that score up in next year’s ranking. But if every Skidmore graduate who was positive about his or her education contributed to the annual fund every year, I venture that would easily put us ahead of the top-scoring 66 percent giving rate at Amherst and the 65 percent rate at Centre College of Kentucky, with which Skidmore is tied in the overall rankings.
Regardless of the measures used by U.S. News, at Skidmore in the past few years we have established a set of “core capacities” that we expect our students to develop during college. Increasingly we are evaluating individual and institutional success against these goals. We also survey seniors to evaluate their college experience, and we ask graduates about how well their education provided the tools they’re using for work, lifelong learning, and personal satisfaction. These assessments should yield better understandings of the quality and results of our educational endeavors. They are not likely to yield the kind of easy answers or quick comparability that U.S. News sells.
Ultimately, what really matters is whether a particular school’s values, educational approaches, and culture make it a place where an individual student will thrive. Generations of Skidmore graduates, and our current population of curious, ambitious students, have found that it is.