Number eight New Ivy, number eight liberal arts college and 18th smartest students. Macalester has received numerous accolades recently, but they might have less of an impact on the Mac community and prospective applicants than one might think.
“Overall, I don’t like them,” President Brian Rosenberg said. “I think it’s an attempt to quantify what is not fundamentally quantifiable, and that is: what is the right college for each student.”
Helena Oddo ’16 said she was attracted to Macalester by its prestige, but it wasn’t the decisive factor.
“I was looking for [a college] that would fit me best rather than it just being a really well-ranked school,” she said.
Oddo applied regular decision (RD) to Macalester, explaining she was deterred by the binding nature of the early decision (ED) option.
“I would have applied if there was early action because it would have been less stressful than just having to wait,” she said.
Still, some applicants use rankings as a tool to search for schools.
“Ranking was not my priority, but I used the U.S. News to find schools,” said prospective student Jason Kang from Waltham, MA, who applied ED.
“Ranking definitely impacted my decision but was not the only reason that I applied to Macalester.”
In August, Unigo published its “Top Ten New Ivies” list and the Washington Monthly released its list of top U.S. liberal arts colleges. On both lists, Mac ranked eighth. Then the most popular and widely circulated rankings, done by U.S. News and World Report, named Mac the 24th best liberal arts college in September. Most recently, Business Insider’s rankings of smartest colleges listed Mac as 18th.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt that Mac was mentioned in a positive light,” said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Lorne Robinson.
Rosenberg criticized the U.S. NewsRankings the most.
“[They place] a lot of emphasis on how much money you spend,” he said. “At a time when colleges should be thinking about the more efficient use of their resources and figuring out more ways they can be less expensive, it seems like you’re rewarded for spending more and penalized for being more efficient.”
The U.S. News Rankings formula gives 10 percent weight to a school’s financial resources (average spending per student) and five percent to alumni giving rate (percent of living alumni who gave to their school in the past two years). Had Kang not glanced at the U.S. News rankings, he would not have discovered the strength of Macalester’s International Studies program and decided to apply ED. He said that he chose to apply ED as opposed to RD because it made his application process simpler.
“I just wanted to find the results early,” he said.
Kang is part of a general trend of more applicants choosing to apply early. It is too soon to tell if the number of ED applicants is up this year, but President Brian Rosenberg said he believes it is continuing to increase.
“I think it may be that students are being counseled in their high schools, if they really know where they want to go, to apply ED to maximize their chances of getting admitted,” Rosenberg said.
According to Robinson, official ED numbers won’t be available until Dec. 10. He said that the media’s infatuation with ED numbers has a catch.
“Of course, the only colleges that tell [the media] what their ED application numbers look like are those that saw increases,” said Robinson. “The others don’t want publicity about ED numbers declining, so it always looks like everybody’s up, up, up!”
“My understanding is that the number is up,” Rosenberg said. “But we won’t really how much it’s up until some of those students [finish sending in their letters of recommendation and transcripts].”
It is possible that there has been a gradual increase, however, and Rosenberg discussed possible reasons for this trend.
“I know that the coaches are talking to the athletes a lot about applying ED,” Rosenberg said. “A, because it increases their chances of being admitted, and B, because the coaches like a certain sense of certainty and commitment from potential athletes.”
For student-athlete and former RD applicant Jon Melms ’16, the ED process never came into play.
“I just wasn’t really exactly sure where I was going to be going,” he said. “I didn’t really narrow down [the colleges] in time.”
Melms said that while some of his baseball teammates may have applied ED, there was no pressure from the program to submit an early application.
“I guess that’s a thing with the coaching staff,” he said. “They’re very flexible.”
Melms reiterated the sentiment that rankings were not the most important factor in determining where to apply.
“When I was looking at colleges, the education was really important for me,” he said. “Since I’m a student-athlete, I was looking for a great experience of sports and [academics].”
Director of Communications David Warch took a similar stance.
“In terms of advertising the rankings, outside of Admissions materials and the website, we do very little,” Warch said.
According to Warch, the Communications Department occasionally posts notable rankings on the college’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. For example, when the Business Insider ranking came out, they posted the story on Facebook. As of press time, the post received 233 likes and 101 shares. Although the school will occasionally advertise interesting rankings, Rosenberg emphasized that the numbers must be put into perspective.
“The notion that there’s a 17 and that’s different from a 15, or a 21 is different than a 26, that … assigns a level of precision that doesn’t exist,” he said. “As a form of entertainment and one piece of information in a much more complicated puzzle, they’re fine, but I think if they’re taken too seriously, they can be misleading.”
This is problematic for students who rely heavily on ranking lists to judge whether they want to attend a school. This includes international students who will most likely never get a chance to visit schools while they are making their decisions. Liza Yeager, an RD applicant currently studying at United World College in Mostar, noted that rankings deeply impacted the decisions of international students there.
“People at my school are extremely dependent on rankings lists,” she said. “Rankings are often a readily-available tool for students to judge a college’s excellence.”
Some schools have taken to forging their numbers to up their ranking. Claremont McKenna College (CMC) was in the news at the beginning of the year for exaggerating their students’ average SAT scores and class ranks, which resulted in the college President’s departure. This August, Emory University was caught doing the same thing. The most recent hammer came down last month, when it was revealed that George Washington University had overstated the number of matriculating students who ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes by 20 percent.
“You begin to wonder how reliable any of the data is when you know that some of it is not true,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg argued that Macalester’s improvements are not diminished when rival schools also improve.
“We can’t control what other people do,” he said. “Let’s say … we get 20 percent better at what we do and so does Grinnell. We’re still better at what we do and we should be pleased. The only way we’re going to be ranked more highly is if we get 20 percent better and Grinnell doesn’t, and I’m not sure that’s what we should be using to measure our success.”
Rosenberg said that Macalester’s retention and graduation rates have both gone up during his tenure.
“That tells me, A, that we’re being more efficient, and, B, that students are having a good experience seeing that they want to stay,” he said.
Whether or not Macalester’s new rankings hold significant weight, many students who applied to the first round of ED are now anxiously awaiting the results.
“I just wanted to find the re sults early,” Kang said. “Macalester is my first choice … there’s no [chance] I’d go to another college if I got in.”
Right now, it’s the anticipation that’s killing Kang.
“It’s kind of hard because I put all my effort to get into Macalester,” Kang said. “It would be really sad if I missed this chance.”