Author: Anahid Yahjian and Tyler Kearn
“Just a second,” James Tranquada says, patiently scrolling through a seemingly endless collection of files in his computer. Nestled in a small office on the first floor of the Coons Administrative building, Tranquada is surrounded with file cabinets, cardboard boxes and bookshelves arranged both horizontally and vertically—all testaments to his information-based post as Director of Communications.
A closer look at the various storage spaces reveals that the file cabinets are categorized, the boxes are labeled and the shelves are adorned with copy after copy of college rankings published by various companies, among other Occidental and college-related publications. There is no question that when it comes to Oxy’s place in the ranks of higher education, Tranquada is the man to be reckoned with.
Last month, U.S. News and World Report released their annual college rankings, in which Occidental was ranked 36th out of 106 liberal arts colleges. In the last 10 years, Oxy’s ranking has fluctuated, from a high of 33rd in 1998 to a low of 44th in 2002, settling at 36th since last year. As seen in a press release on the Occidental website, the annual rankings have become a cause for celebration, mostly due in part to Oxy’s consistent presence in the top 50.
“Everybody wants their school to be ranked highly, of course,” Tranquada said. “Everybody wants to be associated with a prestigious institution.”
Contrary to the seeming simplicity of attributing each school to a number, however, there is actually a complex system at work when calculating each school’s position; a system which, according to Tranquada, isn’t perfect.
U.S. News gathers its rankings by having each participating institution fill out the nearly 70-page Common Data Set, a statistical questionnaire whose queries range from the percentage of the Greek population to faculty salaries. They use a numerical formula, which puts a value on each of the different components and ultimately leads to an overall ranking.
There are a few criticisms regarding the way the rankings are compiled, however. Tranquada said U.S. News changes their formula—what it factors and with what weight—from year to year.
“In 1990, they had a category titled ‘instructional quality’,” he said. “They don’t have it anymore. Now it’s ‘faculty resources.'”
The changing methodology can cause a school’s rank to rise or fall, even if the school itself doesn’t change. This can also make it problematic to compare one year’s ranking with another.
“Categories change over time and you can’t go back and do an apples-to-apples comparison,” Tranquada said.
Tranquada said the weight placed on certain points of evaluation may result in the arguably unfair lower ranking of a more deserving institution. For example, he said, many schools consider the “peer assessment” category—the highest weighted component (25 percent), which is created by having the leaders of each college rate their peer institutions—to be nothing more than a “beauty contest.”
Similarly, some components only pertain to certain parts of the list. The relatively new ethnic and economic diversity categories are referenced only for the top 25 schools, thus excluding Oxy. According to Tranquada, if the range were expanded to the top 50, Oxy would be third in ethnic diversity after Wellesley College and tied for second in economic diversity after Smith College—a result of Smith’s higher use of Pell Grants.
Despite all this, however, the top 50 schools haven’t made any large movements on the list as of late. In the past 10 years, Oxy has fluctuated from the mid-30s to the mid-40s, but did not make any truly dramatic changes.
This is even more telling when the top three schools on the list—Williams, Swarthmore and Amherst—have remained so since the first rankings published in 1983; the only changes were ones in position within the trio, the most ironic being the reverse order 24 years ago.
If a school beyond the top three does change position, however, it can actually be a result of another school doing worse in the rankings that particular year, even if the rising school didn’t necessarily improve.
It’s important to note that in many areas, Oxy is ranked far higher than its overall ranking suggests. Tranquada pointed out that Oxy is doing well in selectivity.
“We have the highest selectivity rating that we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’re at 33, up from 37 last year.”
What is keeping Oxy from climbing significantly higher, then? One of the main reasons is money, Tranquada said.
“U.S. News puts a lot of emphasis on financial resources,” he said. “When you look at the endowments of the top-ranked colleges [. . .] the top three schools all have endowments that are in the billions and are over three times the size of Occidental’s.”
Swarthmore has an endowment of $1.2 billion, Amherst $1.3 billion and Williams $1.4-1.5 billion. Oxy has an endowment of $337 million.
Another affecting issue is that of visibility; liberal arts colleges in general are significantly less known, with their students making up less than 3 percent of the college-attending public.
“The quality of the education doesn’t match up with the visibility,” Tranquada said. It does seem, however—especially with the recent trend of larger universities creating liberal arts colleges within their own institutions—that there is potential for this to change.
“I think people are starting to realize the value of small class sizes and intimate relationships with professors who know your name,” Tranquada said.
Despite the complexities that lie beneath the ranking system surface, however, there are students out there who use them in their decision making process. One of Oxy’s highest rankings is in diversity. For Joni Nofchissey (sophomore), it was “the diversity that they claimed that was one of the main things that attracted me to Oxy in the first place,” she said.
For many, though, the ranking was an insignificant factor in their decision to come to Oxy. “I applied to schools based on how they were ranked, but I applied to Oxy based on how I felt,” Liam Dixon (first-year) said.
There are also students who didn’t pay attention to the rankings. “I don’t know enough about the rankings to actually have an opinion on it,” Michael Darling (sophomore) said. “I suppose I care about it in the sense that it looks better to be at a college that has a good ranking, but I don’t know if the rankings really matter.”
Though he recognizes that students use the rankings as a tool when deciding on a school, Dean of the College Eric Frank thinks the rankings are an ineffective tool for comparison.”We don’t like the rank particularly,” Frank said. “It ranks the reputational character of an institution [. . .] but it’s locked inside a historical East Coast bias.”
He said he doesn’t think U.S. News‘ rankings “reflect the quality of the educational institution” and it is “more important to engage in a conversation with the applicant public,” as opposed to letting them find information from perhaps not-so-reliable sources and, potentially, discouraging them from applying to Oxy.
Currently in the process of preparing Oxy for a renewal of its WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation, Frank shed light on how he would consider what WASC does for schools far more valuable than rankings. He described the WASC approach as one based on “professional standards of assessment.”
“The accreditation process allows for the institution to examine itself in a way that is helpful to [it],” Frank said, in reference to the more individualized and internal functions of the accreditation process, as opposed to the comparative ones of the rankings.
He said he felt that U.S. News is an example of the “United States’ obsession with comparative rank,” which stems from the arguably classic “American notion of competition.”
Frank’s disdain for the ranki
ngs is not a unique one. According to an article published in The New York Times in June, The Annapolis Group—“a loose association of liberal arts colleges”—released a statement that month that “a majority of the 80 presidents attending had ‘expressed their intent not to participate in the annual U.S. News survey.'” Schools such as Barnard and Sarah Lawrence were among those joining the movement.
Also mentioned in the article were plans for the group to start making its own comparative rankings, with the hope that what they felt was wrong with those of U.S. News would be righted.
U.S. News‘ rankings are not exclusive to colleges, either. An extensive—and growing—list can be found in the “Rankings” tab of their website, ranging from “Best Hospitals” to “Best Cars and Trucks.” According to Tranquada, the publishing of these rankings “makes up for the lack of readership,” with revenue coming from print sales, the website, books that are printed to accompany the rankings and advertisements. In the college rankings issue, advertisements for various institutions are sprinkled throughout the feature. Tranquada said these are attained mostly through constant solicitation of participating schools.
“I get hit up every year,” he said.
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