CMC, Ranked and Filed

August, to some, is the time to start shopping for school supplies. But to rising high school seniors, it means time to start shopping for schools. In this time-honored tradition, 'tis the season for private rankings institutions to release fresh lists of the best schools in the United States. Princeton Review

The Princeton Review released its college rankings list August 1 and CMC took top spots in flattering categories, including Happiest Students (#2), Best Quality of Life ( #4), Best Career Services (#7) and School Runs Like Butter (#7).  The full lists are available here.

The Princeton Review book, which profiles the best 300+ colleges in its yearly publication, is a trusted staple for helicopter parents, prospective students, and college administrators.   But the unscientific methods used to create the venerated lists suggest our adoration may be misplaced.

The rankings are calculated by current student surveys.  Here’s Princeton Review’s official word on methodology:

"Most questions offer an answer choice on a five-point scale: students fill in one of five boxes on a grid with headers varying by topic (e.g. a range from “Excellent” to “Awful”). All of our 62 ranking lists tallies are based on students’ answers to one or more of these questions with a five-point answer scale. Some questions on the survey are open-ended and offer students the opportunity to answer with narrative responses.

Once the surveys have been completed and the responses stored in our database, we tally the results. Our methodology and the math by which we calculate our ranking results are quite simple. Each college is given a score (similar to a GPA) for its students’ answers to each multiple-choice question. These scores enable us to compare student opinion from college to college. They are the sole factors that determine which schools make it onto our 62 ranking lists."

Of course, a rank near the bottom or the top of the pack has some truth to it.  Yes, our professors are accessible, perhaps too accessible when they wander through North Quad on a Thursday night.  But we’re #5 in “Lots of Beer” and UC Santa Barbara is #20?  Is our standing meant to imply that there is more beer consumed per capita at CMC than Santa Barbara? Anyone who believes that, to speak proverbially, clearly has had too much to drink.  That’s up from #13 since last year, but our alcohol policy has only become more restrictive.

CMC, at #8, outranked Scripps in the “Dorms Like Palaces” category.  If the category was “A Dorm is Like a Palace,” then perhaps CMC’s Claremont Hall could give Scripps’ GJW a run for its money.  But no one would doubt CMC’s founding fathers had utility, not luxury, in mind when designing North and Mid Quads.  Save a few hinges, the dorms could have been tipped on their sides and hosed down after a keg tap gone wrong.  Compare this to Scripps, where the sheer number of clinging vines may be enough to qualify it for a feature piece in Martha Stewart Living. The dorms also boast stained glass windows, coincidentally the window material favored by those who live in... palaces.

Forbes

The new Forbes Magazine college rankings were released on August 11 and soon became linked and liked all over Facebook.   The Forbes rankings system is its infancy--it's only three years old--and the magazine is admittedly still working out flaws in methodology, which may explain dramatic year-to-year changes.  CMC moved from #27 in the “Best Colleges” list to #9 in the span of one year, placing it between Harvard (#8) and Yale (#10).

The rankings here are compiled from a combination of student opinions, including 17.5% from RateMyProfessors.com, and objective data, including alumni salaries from Payscale.com.

But the factors included range in legitimacy. Under “Postgraduate Success” is the outright absurd measure of listing of alumni in Who’s Who in America, featured only ten years earlier in the same magazine as “The Hall of Lame” for containing “a lot of relatively unaccomplished people who simply nominated themselves.”  This makes up 10% of a college’s score.

Since last year, they’ve dropped faculty awards altogether from consideration.  Previously, faculty awards made up 8.33% of the rankings.  They’ve included new variables to measure alumni success and default rates on loans.

U.S. News & World Report

The only rankings to get a school-wide email shout-out from President Gann, the U.S. News Rankings released yesterday are the gold standard in college rankings.  They’re also the most methodologically rigorous, incorporating objective measurements as well as subjective evaluations by students, peer institutions, and high school counselors.

The much-anticipated rankings varied only slightly from last year, despite changes in methodology that diminished the influence of ratings by peer institutions’ college presidents that attempted to quantify the reputation of the school.  In 2010, Claremont McKenna was ranked #11 on the list of best liberal arts colleges, a position shared with Vassar College.  In 2011, CMC retained its spot at #11 but has edged ahead of Vassar.   Pomona College, #6 last year, also remains at #6, suggesting to consumers that the methodological changes were not as dramatic as expected.

In 2011 the magazine placed more weight on graduation rates, increasing the measure's weight from 5 percent to 7.5 percent of the final score.  High school counselors are now given a say and college officials’ opinions will receive less weight to accommodate them.

High honors or cheap sales?

“Top” liberal arts colleges formalized their objections to college rankings by circulating a petition in September 2007 agreeing not to use rankings in promotional material. Notable signatories included the presidents of Amherst, Carleton, Haverford, Wellesley and Pomona Colleges.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted last year by Forum Editor-in-Chief Michael Wilner, Pomona President David Oxtoby discussed his position on college rankings. Although he does think rankings in general have helped all liberal colleges by placing them among larger, well known schools including Ivies and public universities, he wished colleges and prospective students would place less faith in them.

“They have absurd claims to being scientific, which is really frustrating," Oxtoby said. "On the other hand, the idea of protesting is a waste of time.  So I did not agree to the boycott. I think the reputational rankings are probably more valid that the rest of the survey components.”

He added, “I think we’re under-ranked. We should be higher.  In different ways, the other [Claremont] colleges may be under-ranked as well.”

President Gann had a different approach to the boycott, which she articulated in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.  Gann claimed that CMC only makes “very limited use” of rankings in promotional material, and that her objection to the boycott was the fundamental fissure it would create with the college's core philosophy.   “Claremont McKenna College is very committed to free markets and individual choice,” she was quoted, “For-profit publications and rankings are what they are in our free-market economy.”

Staff Writer Sara Birkenthal and Editor-in-Chief Michael Wilner contributed to this article.