Rating the College Ranking System

By Amy Lieberman

Last year, students paraded around in t-shirts with the words “Cheap Smart Hotties with a Conscience,” reflecting a series of rankings that dubbed Macalester the “Hottest Liberal Arts College,” among other titles. Since the 90s Macalester has been considerably high up in the rankings, but a steady stream of new ones, including placement among the “100 Best Campuses for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students,” have brought Macalester to a much more prominent place.
“The word is out,” Director of College Relations Doug Stone said. “People know that Mac is a top liberal arts college. Every year we are stronger.”
And if undergoing projects of a new multi-million dollar Athletic Facility, as well as a more selective admissions process, aren’t enough to prove Macalester’s increasing quality, there are always the rankings.
This year, Newsweek/Kaplan named Macalester one of “America’s 25 New Elite Ivies”; The New York Times dubbed it one of 20 “Hidden Gems…Off the Beaten Path,” and U.S. News World and Report bumped Macalester up one spot from 25 to 24, out of 215 liberal arts colleges.
But for a school like Macalester, which for years has prided itself on its diverse nature and tendency to not conform to the traditional liberal arts college stereotypes, do these rankings really make a difference?
“Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this stuff. I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously,” President Brian Rosenberg said. “We’ve have had a fair amount of bad publicity in the Twin Cities. We should now enjoy it.”
In the past, the attention has focused on U.S. News & World Report rankings, as it comprehensively lists different categories for each school in its annual end of August issue.
One of Associate Provost and Director for Institutional Research Dan Balik’s job duties is to track and research U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. Once he has dissected the information, he presents it at faculty resource planning meetings and analyzes what it really means.

Since 1998, Macalester has fluctuated between 24 and 26 on the liberal arts round up. Several components, broken down into percentages, allow U.S. News to pin the final numbers on different schools. Peer assessment holds the greatest weight in the rankings at 25%; graduation/retention rates and faculty resources are close behind, at 20% each.
But Macalester’s academic ratings, which for the past few years have consistently remained in between 15 and 18, show how the rankings do not necessarily reflect the school in what many may consider the most accurate light.
Some aspects of the rankings, such as the peer assessment category, are simply out of the college’s reach.
“It is hard to change the impressions of deans and presidents,” Balik said. “It is a subjective poll.”

Balik also commented on the faculty resource category, which includes class size, student-faculty ratio and faculty salary, and has dipped from 34 to 41 in the past 8 years, saying the college is working to improve this factor. Macalester has also decreased in financial resources, the average amount spent on programs and services per student, accounting for 10 percent of the rankings, decreased slightly in student selectivity, moving from 19 to 24.
The one main factor that has improved substantially, alumni giving rate, accounts for merely 5% of the total score.
Still, Macalester is on the go, as record-high application numbers last year displayed. And Balik said that the inner-workings of the school, which are not displayed on glossy pages, prove the same.
“We have worked awfully hard and think we are much better than we were 10 years ago,” he said. “Not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that is measured counts. It’s the quality of teaching, the kind of relationships students and faculty have here that matters. A lot of things are doing better that are totally under the radar.”
More importantly, Balik said, Macalester does not act solely to better itself in the rankings, which is not the case for all colleges. The U.S. News ranking used to include an admitted student yield rate, but the category was later removed when some colleges tampered with the system.
Rankings or not, Rosenberg was quick to state that while Macalester may have won some beauty pageants, the core of the school is, and always has been, the same.
“We strive for a first-rate education, with a focus on citizenship,” he said.

“Engagement with the world as its centerpiece.”
Rosenberg also said that while Macalester is now a little more in the limelight, he holds to the notion that the school is not “selling out.”
“Every generation says this,” he explained. “People from the 60s and 70s call up and say that they couldn’t get in to Macalester now. But colleges are always evolving. They should be organic. If not, they will whither and die.”
While Rosenberg approached the rankings with a degree of nonchalance, it cannot be denied, as Stone commented, that rankings matter—at least a little.
Stone, who was Senator Paul Wellstone’s press secretary, offered the example of politicians’ reactions to polls.
“They poo poo them,” he said, “but on the other hand, they live and die by them.”
Once the rankings are released, Balik said, almost every college near the top, including Macalester, boasts the results on its website. But, he said, perhaps a little pride is not a bad thing, especially for a school with a somewhat more obscure demographic location and a generally low profile.

At the very least, as admissions officer Steve Colee said, the rankings open the doors to some applicants and parents who may not have heard of Macalester before. Specifically, Colee said it has historically been difficult to attract students from either coast. He said that when he used to visit Palo Alto High School, a prominent school in the Bay Area of California, he would be lucky if he spoke with one or two students. The list for Tufts, on the other hand, would fill up the entire page. Now, though, the tables have turned; Macalester’s exposure has led different students towards its direction.
Colee did not attribute all of Macalester’s recruiting success to the rankings. “If rankings really mattered to them that much, they would be someplace else,” he said.

Still, he did say that for some students and parents who are bombarded with college marketing and advertising, a filtering system is helpful.
“How do you separate the hyperbole and gloss from what is meaningful?” Colee asked. “These rankings often perform a service for people who are trying to sort the information.”

At the end of the day, though, Colee said students will choose their school for the sake of the school, not a number.
“Saying the school is better because it is ranked higher is not a good way to approach it. It’s like deciding who your significant other will be. It’s too personal.”
Kirsten Wittkowski ’10 agreed. She first heard of Macalester through a blurb in the U.S. News & World Report and knew it was generally ranked well, but did not know, or particularly care, about the exact number.
“It wasn’t a vital factor for me,” she said. “My parents didn’t care either. They wanted me to do what I wanted.”
Josh Schuckman ’08, an admissions employee and transfer from Emerson College in Boston, Mass., agreed. He said when looking at schools, he used the U.S. News rankings as a base, but simply as a means to get names of schools. “It didn’t matter really to me if Mac was ranked 1 or 100,” he said. “The focus was what the best school was for me.”
Though Schuckman doesn’t mention any rankings in his tour, there are some visitors who seem “absorbed in the rankings,” as he said. “They don’t say anything, but you can sometimes tell by their feedback that it is important to them.”