College rankings are a staple resource for students applying to schools across the country, consulted by parents and invoked to assess the ever-so-difficult-to-quantify idea of “prestige”. They’re a big business, too. Educational institutions spend a great deal of time and money attempting to claw their way up the lists – especially the U.S. News & World Report college ranking, which has been published yearly since 1983 and is generally considered to be the most influential in the United States.
Yet detractors argue that college rankings provide a distorted picture of the educational system and contribute to vast income inequality at elite institutions.
In the 2020 U.S. News ranking of liberal arts colleges, Haverford scored 88 points out of a possible 100, good enough to tie for #11 with Colby College and Smith College. Only a few points separate the top schools: for comparison, Swarthmore scored 93 points and Bryn Mawr scored 81 points, landing at #3 and #27, respectively.
Each college’s overall score comes from a combination of five metrics: outcomes, faculty resources, peer assessments, per-student spending, admissions selectivity, and alumni giving, chosen based on what the magazine claims “is the product of years of research”.
The two most heavily weighted factors are a college’s six-year graduation rate, which makes up 17.6% of its score, and its academic reputation, which makes up 20%. The magazine determines the latter factor based on peer assessment surveys, where they ask college administrators to rate similar schools on a scale from 1 to 5. In the most recent rankings, the response rate for these surveys was only 43%.
Though prospective applicants sometimes speculate that universities have an incentive to reduce acceptance rates or improve yield rates – the percentage of admitted students that enroll at a school – these two statistics are no longer factored into the U.S. News rankings. Instead, the magazine now assesses admissions selectivity based on the standardized test scores and class ranks of incoming classes.
Haverford’s position in the U.S. News rankings has been remarkably consistent over time. Based on a dataset compiled by Andrew G. Reiter, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College, Haverford has ranked between #5 and #11 nearly every year since 1984. The two exceptions – in 1991 and 2018 – seem to have been aberrations, as the college quickly recovered its position the following year.
That consistency lends credence to the criticism that the U.S. News rankings favor wealthier and better-known institutions, including Haverford, that attract applicants from privileged backgrounds and can afford to spend large sums of money on their student body. In contrast, schools that primarily serve less privileged students are disfavored, even if graduates achieve much greater social mobility.
Despite some recent tweaks to boost the importance of social mobility metrics in the U.S. News formula, critics maintain that the changes are too little, too late. “U.S. News changed the way it ranks colleges. It’s still ridiculous,” the Washington Post declares. “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus,” says Politico.
An analysis by The New York Times in 2017 found that the colleges that were most successful at propelling low-income students into the middle class included the City College of New York and California State University, Los Angeles – institutions that are rated poorly by the U.S. News model.
The same analysis estimated that only 19% of Haverford students came from households in the bottom 60% of incomes (under $65,000 per year), while 14% came from households in the top 1% of incomes (more than $630,000 per year).
Although U.S. News produces the most well-known rankings, it isn’t the only publication to do so. Forbes magazine, best known as the publisher of the Forbes 400, a list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, also produces a list that ranks all colleges and universities in the United States. Unsurprisingly, its formula leans heavily on economic data. The amount of federal debt held by graduates, self-reported post-graduation salaries, and student satisfaction surveys each count for 20% of a school’s score.
Additionally, the number of alumni who make it onto the Forbes-created “American Leaders” list makes up 15% of a school’s score. Haverford’s representatives include Michael Kim, the South Korean private equity mogul for whose father Kim Hall is named, as well as Alex Karp, the CEO of the controversial Silicon Valley firm Palantir.
The website Niche takes a slightly different approach. Its rankings incorporate student reviews on a variety of aspects, including the quality of campus life and overall academic experience. (Sample question: “What are your favorite campus events or traditions?” Answer: “Haverfest.”) Given Haverford’s size, the pool of reviews is quite small: only 214 reviews total, with far fewer in many of the subsections that Niche uses to build their rankings.
Despite the methodological differences, these rankings all produce fairly similar results. According to Forbes, Haverford ranks #49 overall, and #15 among liberal arts colleges; by Niche’s estimation, Haverford slots in at #31 overall, and #4 among liberal arts colleges. Given that these outlets solicit many of the same inputs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that their outputs resemble each other so much.
For its part, Haverford seems to play down the importance of its own scores. The “Why Haverford?” page in the admissions portion of the college’s website makes no mention of any college rankings at all. Instead, it proclaims, “Haverford is consistently considered among the top academic institutions in the country.”