The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Mac ranked 27th best liberal arts college: why do we care?

Graphic by Zander Leong ’26.

For the fourth year in a row, the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) ranked Macalester College as the 27th best liberal arts college nationwide. However, with increased questions and criticism from universities regarding the validity and importance of the report, Macalester itself is wondering how to best respond to this ranking and narrate its own values alongside the report. 

On Sept. 14, 2022, amid peak controversy surrounding the USNWR, Macalester College published an article titled “US News, others rank Macalester College among nation’s top liberal arts colleges” informing the student body of Macalester’s ranking as 27th best liberal arts college in the US.

“While rankings are controversial and their algorithms can be opaque, they matter to students and their families, and we’re extremely proud that Macalester is at the top of so many lists,” President Suzanne Rivera said in the article.

 “It’s not surprising to me that Mac students might look at a ranking and say, tell me more about why we are ranked number 27 in this year’s report?” Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Jeff Allen said. “What does that mean? Why should I care? Why should anybody care?” 

Each year, the USNWR publishes a list of best national universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities and regional colleges. The USNWR Best Colleges List considers various elements of college life. It gives the heaviest consideration to graduation rates and peer assessment, and also examines success of outcomes for students of different backgrounds, debt and post-graduate success. Data is compiled based on information given by institutions directly to the U.S. News and information gathered from public records. 

“To find the right college, you need a source of comprehensive data – information that lets you compare one school with another and find the differences that matter to you. That’s what U.S. News’ Best Colleges rankings are for,” U.S. News said in an article they published on Sept. 17.

“It’s overwhelming, the college choice, there are so many schools and [people] are looking for something digestible that says to them, okay, these are the good schools.” Associate Director for Admissions Research Katie Reed said. 

However, many schools resist the assertion that they are objects to be ranked according to a system they deem arbitrary. 

The New York Times published an article titled “Why Colleges Can’t Quit the U.S. News Rankings,” the release of 2024 Best College Rankings. In this piece, administrators voiced their concerns about the ethics behind the ranking system, arguing against “the notion that schools could be scored and sorted as if they were mattresses or microwaves.”

A portion of the report’s highest ranked colleges and universities — Columbia University, Colorado College, Yale and Harvard Law School and more — have elected to stop sending college data to the U.S. News. Criticism of the report has followed with administrators and students alike questioning the purpose behind ranking institutions.

Reed College, a school of a similar size and liberal arts curriculum to Macalester, is one of the schools that recently stopped sending data to the USNWR, causing a drastic decrease in their ranking. On Jul. 9, 2021, Reed Magazine published an article titled The Ominous Cracks in the US News College Ranking System,” bashing the ranking system and what it stands for. 

“The algorithm is fundamentally a reflection of wealth and privilege, favoring rich over poor, white over Black, and fancy dorms over inspiring professors,” the Reed Magazine article stated.

Attempting to combat earlier, similar critiques, the USNWR introduced a social mobility ranking in 2019. The social mobility category ranks institutions based on their promotion of diversity and inclusion. 

“I think [the social mobility ranking] is one of the ways that they try to combat some of those things and recognize that there are some systemic issues baked into higher [education] and into our system,” Bethany Miller, Macalester’s Director of Institutional Research and Assessment, said. “You can’t escape the foundations of colonialism and white supremacy.” 

Statistics gathered by Macalester admissions show that students use USNWR and other ranking sources in their college application processes. While administrators acknowledge the flaws inherent in the USNWR ranking system, they argue that publicity retaining Macalester’s ranking is essential given the size and resources that the college has.

“When I have the ability to have a nuanced conversation with students and families about rankings, what really goes into them, and what parts are meaningful in terms of a quality education, those are the pieces of the ranking that matter,” Reed said. “Regardless of whether they were part of the ranking, we always want our retention rates and our graduation rates to be strong.” 

Macalester’s mission statement proclaims that the college is dedicated to the success of individual students. Independently of the USNWR ranking system, Macalester’s values correlate to attributes weighed in the ranking process.

“From my perspective, it’s really about whether or not we’re meeting our mission, whether or not we’re meeting the values of what we want to be able to do and provide for our students and for our community. No external ranking can do that or push that forward for you,” Miller said. 

The faults inherent in educational rankings have not gone unnoticed by the Macalester administration. 

U.S. News rankings at times feel more like a reflection of institutional resources and perhaps actual college attributes, than a measure of the learning and experiences that happen at a college or university,”  Allen said.

According to Miller, being informed and staying true to Macalester’s mission gives more control over its own story, ensuring that a ranking is no more than a number.

“It’s imperative for institutions to be able to take charge of their own narrative storytelling. I think understanding our own data, talking about it, and having that data-informed decision support mentality can be really helpful in helping us move forward,” Miller said. 

Macalester admissions staff feel that with a clear mission statement and a well-informed approach, the college can take pride in a USNWR ranking without becoming entrenched in competitive propaganda some feel the rankings represent. Reed and Allen emphasized the integrity of an institution within and beyond its ranking. 

“I don’t think that those rankings represent any change in the actual quality of education you would get at those schools from last year to this year and I would hope that families could recognize that,” Reed said.

“I feel like Macalester students are taught and trained and bring with them to campus a desire to complicate the narrative, the prevailing narrative, which is a great part of a liberal arts education in general,” Allen said. “But it’s also, I think, something that the Macalester community does quite well.”


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    Wes MukaiOct 23, 2023 at 11:52 am

    I think Macalester must participate in these types of rankings. I am afraid of the examples of colleges like Reed in Oregon, that fell in brand/name recognition/perceived prestige, when they chose to drop out in 90’s. I think Macalester would run the risk of being lost in noise without some type of external metric.