Wesleyan's Ludicrous U.S. News Ranking

21? Again?

I attended Bowdoin (ranked #3 this year!) as a first year and transferred to Wesleyan (then ranked 6th or 7th). Some deep flaw inheres within the U.S. News methodology. I know this will draw fire, but placing Washington & Lee, Colby, Hamilton, Grinnell, and Colgate ahead of Wes does not comport with the reality of these schools. More than one person in publishing, my field, has told me that U.S. News has a longstanding “boner” (not the good kind) for Wesleyan, which should never have dropped below the top 10. It seems likely that this distortion of reality will have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy and affect the type of students who apply next year. The intellectual vitality and panoramic offerings of the school dwarf those of the schools listed above as well as others ranked higher than Wesleyan.

I think it’s more accurate, and less divisive, to put them in tiers.

I might have something like:

  1. Amherst, Pomona, Swat, Williams
  2. Bowdoin, Middlebury, Wellesley
  3. Carleton, CMC, Hamilton, Haverford, Smith, Vassar, Wes
  4. Colby, Colgate, Davidson, Grinnell, HMC, Oberlin, Reed, W&L
  5. Barnard, Bates, Bryan Mawr, Kenyon, Macalester, Richmond...

…something like that.

I think USNews’ formula is as good as any at predicting undergrad quality, but there are some results each year that seem to depart from conventional wisdom. Wes certainly has an elite academic rep; something else in the formula must be bringing them down. That also applies to Haverford and Hamilton this year, among LACs. We know why Reed is ridiculously low each year: they don’t participate.

I saw a lots of cross admits from top 10 LACs and top 20 National Universities (including the Ivys) coming to Wesleyan this year as freshmen / transfers. I definitely agree that with Wes’s reputation, it should well be in the top 10.

It’s both ironic and sad that elite educational institutes nowadays have to be so conscious about being “ranked” by a magazine (UCLA and USC this year seems very excited for placing #21 – same seating with Cal and Emory; Wesleyan too was very excited for placing #9 in Forbes last year).

Real world experience. My Daughter was accepted to Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Swat but chose Wesleyan last year. On her freshman hall were 4 kids who all got into Ivies (Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth) but chose Wes. I am sure you can find anecdotes like that everywhere, but my D’s highschool school sends kids to top schools everywhere and Wes is always a preferred destination to most of the other LACs ranked above it…

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If it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying again and again: Complex institutions like colleges and universities do not change so much from one year to the next to justify a yearly poll. Any interval more than five or six years apart is only there to make you buy the magazine. When the first USNews poll came out, we Old Cards were aghast that Wesleyan only finished fifth or sixth (we all thought it should have been #1.) But, that was back when the poll was truly a poll and not a Rubik’s cube of weights and measures that get jiggered from one year to the next. Wesleyan’s rank has been all over the map since then even as it’s applicant pool has doubled, its graduates made tremendous names for themselves, and the reputation of the place has only grown. So, who knows? Maybe, the trick all along has been to find applicants who don’t live and die by polls and rankings. If that’s the case, the joke is on USNews.

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I highly doubt that there are people sitting around a conference table at USNWR plotting how to filter the numbers so that Wes is not ranked in the top 20. What is the case, is that in some measures that USNWR finds important in rating colleges, Wes does not do as well as other schools. Digging deeper, it seems as it is the Faculty Resource metric (Wes ranked 40, Colby 16, Colgate 13) and the Financial Resources metric (Wes ranked 45, Colby 21 and Colgate 32), that kept Wesleyan from being ranked higher. People often conflate ‘best’ with acceptance rate and test scores, but those alone are not going to get you to the top in the USNWR ranking.

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@wisteria100

I’m glad you up brought that up. The Faculty Resource metric (or, Faulty Resource Metric, I like to call it), is but one example of a made-up bell and whistle that only makes sense in USNews-world. It takes the entire payroll of a university and divides it using the faculty roster as a denominator. While on the surface that might make sense, in reality, it is responsible for much of the roller-coaster drops and rises a college - any college, not just Wesleyan - experiences from one year to the next. Why? Because anytime a sizable cohort of senior faculty retires - as often happens in academia - and, is replaced by new hires, it causes the average salaries as a whole to undergo a big dip. I’ve seen this occur over and over again without USNews ever acknowledging the reality underneath the statistic. And there are others just as bad.

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@circuitrider Not defending USNWR metrics, but salary accounts for only about 1/3 of the faculty resource metric.
The rest is faculty/student ratio, full-time vs part-time, degree level etc.

All rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. Enjoy them, but do not mistake them for gospel. (Sorry for two cliched expressions in a row!)
But I do not expect Wesleyan’s applicant pool to suffer, as the OP feared. It is a “hot” school right now, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fame as an alumnus, among other factors.
Any student looking at colleges should feel free to look at the rankings, but should not make all decisions based on them. For each applicant, there are so many highly personal aspects to finding a good range of colleges to which to apply. Anyone who decides between two schools based solely on a difference of a few spots on a ranking chart is giving the ranking organization way too much power.

I agree with @prezbucky rankings as the #15 schools are not stronger academically than Hamilton, Haverford or Wesleyan.

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Chembiodad,

About your assertion, how so?

Go 'gate!

You could probably just combine my #8 and #15 “tiers” into one large tier.

Drawing dividing lines is really hard when schools are so similar in overall quality.

That’s why kids should use rankings as a rough guide for identifying reach/match/safety possibilities and then really concentrate on picking the schools in each category that fit them the best.

For a 1500/3.9 kid with qualitative qualities to match, reaches and low reaches among LACs will be schools ranked roughly 1-20 (still check average test scores, GPA and admit rate to confirm admissions difficulty…), match-range – high match, match, low match – schools will be roughly 21-70 or so, and below 70 you might be getting into safety territory – but only if the admit rate is at least 50%.

You can use the rankings somewhat constructively in that manner.

@markham, using two very different metrics - admitted student scores and endowment per student provides some useful data as to how schools could be objectively compared.

Colby:
SAT:
CR 630 - 720
Math 640 - 740
ACT: 29 - 32
Endowment: $700MM, $370K per student

Colgate:
SAT:
CR 640 - 720
Math 650 - 740
ACT: 30 - 33
Endowment: $850MM, $290K per student

Hamilton:
SAT
CR 650 - 740
Math 650 - 740
ACT: 31 - 33
Endowment - $950MM, $500K per student

Maybe not with Wes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually does happen with Reed, though.

Historically, Reed was ranked as a Top Ten LAC by USNWR. Now, of course, Reed publicly rejects the rankings, and refuses to supply USNWR with the data that they request. But USNWR calculates a rank for Reed anyway – which is only possible because USNWR generates estimates to substitute for the missing data.

So there may very well be people sitting around a conference table generating unrealistic numbers to ensure that Reed’s rank stays low. It’s undeniable that Reed’s rank fell off a cliff after it stopped cooperating with USNWR – in fact, Reed brags about it on their admissions website (“the most precipitous decline in the history of the U.S. News ratings.”)

Where would Reed place, approximately, if they did supply the info? Top 10? 10-20? etc.

By entering-student standardized scores, Reed recently placed slightly above Middlebury and slightly below Wellesley and Hamilton (http://www.businessinsider.com/the-50-smartest-colleges-in-america-2016-10), which would typically indicate that Reed would be a top 20 school at least. However, by some heavily weighted U.S. News factors, such as graduation rate (78%), Reed registers as statistically only fair for its category. Overall, then, Reed would be likely to place outside the top 20 by current U.S. News methodology.

In terms of Reed’s substantive factors, their curriculum is fairly narrow compared to other top liberal arts colleges (for example, no geology). As excellent as Reed is, then, some of the recognition they receive on CC might not fully consider some of the school’s offsetting shortcomings, at least for potential students with far-ranging academic interests.

Chembiodad,

Two very different metrics showing how the 3 schools can be objectively compared is obviously not the whole story.

USN&WR has done a thorough and thoughtful analysis which justifies Colgate’s relatively high ranking.You might want to visit the campus and see what makes Colgate so special and unique as well.

Go 'gate!

@markham, yes DD’s toured Colgate and Colby, amongst many others, and they were accepted to both, amongst many others - in the end, neither Colgate nor Colby was for them.

Yes, but this nonetheless conjures an amusing image.

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Accusations that USNews “cooks its books” actually go back a long way:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crapshoot/2000/09/cooking_the_school_books_yet_again.html

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