Dartmouth drops in U.S. News rankings

by Hillary Wool | 8/17/07 3:52am

Dartmouth dropped from ninth to 11th in U.S. News & World Report's 2008 rankings of "America's Best Colleges," released today. The College previously had maintained a three-way tie with Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

"I don't know what the causes are," College President James Wright said of the College's movement down the list. "It's definitely not because of the strengths of faculty and students -- I can't imagine that anyone thinks this has declined."

Although Dartmouth improved its standing in many of the 'subfactors' that U.S. News uses to compute overall rank, the College scored lower in the 'categories' of peer assessment and financial resources rank than it had in the 2007 edition. The methodology's seven categories -- peer assessment, faculty resources, graduation and retention rate, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving and graduation rate performance -- together incorporate 15 subfactors.

The peer assessment, in which presidents and deans of other colleges are asked to rate other institutions, is the most heavily weighted component in the ranking algorithm, accounting for 25 percent of a college's overall score.

Dartmouth is the lowest-ranked Ivy League institution in the area of peer assessment, with a score of 4.3 out of 5 points. Last year, the College scored 4.4 on the measure.

Although Dartmouth fell in rank in the financial resources category, the drop is relative to other institutions, and does not reflect a decline in College funding.

Dartmouth improved in six subfactors: percent of classes of 50 or more students, six-year graduation rate, average freshman retention rate, acceptance rate, freshmen graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class and alumni giving rate.

Dartmouth's decline in the rankings comes after an academic year in which campus controversies frequently put Dartmouth in the national spotlight. A series of racially-charged events during fall 2007, in addition to the turmoil surrounding the alumni constitution vote and recent alumni trustee election, garnered attention from major newspapers and bloggers.

"Last year there were some controversies on campus," Wright said. "What does that do? I can't try to figure out the relationship of these things, and wouldn't want to speculate, but clearly there's something going on."

Though Wright acknowledged that the College had received a particularly large amount of media attention surrounding these issues, he believes it would be unwise to attribute the drop to anything in particular.

"Obviously we had some stories that talked about conflict on campus," he said. "I would hope that this wouldn't have that sort of impact, but I can't say for sure."

Wright noted that shifts in the rankings could result from seemingly minor factors, such as changes in the personnel who vote on peer assessment at other institutions.

Wright criticized the methodology that U.S. News uses to rank colleges.

"The whole ratings system is something I've always found troubling," he said.

Regarding the peer assessment category, Wright expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that one-quarter of a school's rating is based on visibility, prestige, money and selectivity.

"If you look at those variables, it's not clear that any of them have to do with the quality of the undergraduate experience," he said.

Wright said he believes that U.S. News system inaccurately reflects the true educational quality of undergraduate programs.

He identified the subfactor, "class size under 20 students," as being misleading, as many institutions allow graduate students, not professors, to teach such classes.

Wright also took fault with the high rating of institutions with high financial resources, as many of those colleges direct those funds largely to graduate students as opposed to undergraduates.

"They're advising people on where the best undergraduate programs are, but I don't think that they are measuring the strength of undergraduate programs," Wright said.

Although he disagreed with the procedure U.S. News utilizes in ranking colleges, Wright acknowledged the importance that such rankings have for many high school students and their parents.

According to current data from the Higher Education Research Institute, 16.4 percent of high school seniors cited rankings in national magazines as a very important reason for choosing a college, a figure that has risen about six percent over the last decade.

The release of the U.S. News 2008 guide comes in the wake of much controversy surrounding the merits of college ranking publications.

Earlier this year, a dozen small liberal arts colleges, all members of the Annapolis Group, decided to stop offering data to U.S. News for its survey, and the presidents of some of those institutions are encouraging others to follow in this trend.

Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy -- a nonprofit group that stands against the so-called commercialization of the college-admissions process -- has led 62 institutions to support the anti-ranking campaign.

Newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post have spotlighted the movement of colleges boycotting rankings, and columnists and bloggers across the nation often advise parents and high school students against basing decisions off of such lists.

Wright said that he intends to continue providing data, but believes that the U.S. News methodology needs revision.

Though Wright said that the formula could be improved -- by using questions that address the size of classes taught by faculty, the percent of students engaged in independent study, and a school's diversity -- in the end, he acknowledged that college rankings are "still comparing apples and oranges."

"In the top 20 are schools ranging from [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to Dartmouth to the University of Michigan," Wright said. "There is not a singular system that could sort out these differences."

Ranked above Dartmouth in the report were Princeton University, Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Duke University, Columbia, and U. Chicago.