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Change in U.S. News Rankings: What Does It All Mean?

<eleased 2013 U.S. News and World Report Rankings place Carleton at #8 on the National Liberal Arts Colleges list. The new ranking represents a shift from last year’s list, in which Carleton tied with Bowdoin and Wellesley for #6. What accounts for this change?

“They can make adjustments in how they are rating certain criteria. It can be minor changes that happen,” explained Dean of Admissions Paul Thiboutot. “They are not static rankings… There are fluctuations that can happen. We’ve been among the top dozen most years, among the top ten in the last decade.”

U.S. News has been ranking schools since 1983. The current annual rankings are based on seven factors, with academic reputation, retention of students and faculty resources most heavily weighted, and student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance and alumni giving rate weighted slightly less.

Carleton scores well in each of these categories. Notably, the college has a ninety-seven percent freshman retention rate and a nine-to-one student to faculty ratio. The statistics are remarkably similar to those of Wellesley and Bowdoin, with the exception that Bowdoin boasts a much lower acceptance rate due to its abundance of applications.

As to what effect these rankings have on admissions, Dean Thiboutot commented, “I’ve not noted dramatic shifts with regard to application numbers or quality of applicants based on that ranking. It’s certainly not a direct correlation.” However, he clarified, the applicant pool might look different if Carleton did not rate in the “top ten or so.”

It remains disputed as to how much weight applicants put on U.S. News rankings, or any rankings for that matter.

In general, Carleton students do not appear to value them highly. Mary Van Dyke ’13 commented, “I think they are pretty stupid. I guess they give you some information, but at the same time the difference between say, #2 and #4 isn’t really anything.”

Evan Rothman ’16 said that rankings informed his decision to come to Carleton “a little, but they didn’t play a big part.” Among people he knows, he said, “they are taken with a grain of salt.”

Thibotout feels that rankings are useful, but only in certain regards. “The colleges with better resources at their disposal rank higher in the U.S. News in general. You have more resources and you’re using them well, then hopefully that brings quality.”

In this financial sense, Carleton’s ranking might reveal an essential quality of the institution. According to Thibotout, “among those top tens, we are the ones with the least resources, but with the most measurable results of quality that they are using against those resources.”

Carleton’s current endowment is roughly $650 million, which, although no small sum, is significantly less than the endowments of higher-ranked colleges. Among the perennial top-three schools—Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore—endowments measure over one billion, according to U.S. News statistics.

Rothman said that rankings are “good as a rough guide,” but “at the same time, it’s a business and the people doing the rankings have an agenda. It changes every year but it’s just because they package the old information as new.”

Dean Thiboutot echoed Rothman’s sentiment, commenting that if a prospective student limits their college search on the basis of rank, “that’s a detrimental use, because there’s an artificiality about what it means to be in a particular ranking.”

It is also worthwhile noting that, while U.S. News is arguably the most well-known ranking, there are a surplus of others that speak to a school’s attributes. Other rankings include Newsweek’s “25 Happiest Schools,” which placed Carleton at #2 in 2012, and the Peace Corps list of small colleges and universities that produce the most volunteers, which placed Carleton at #8 in 2011.

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