We’re #96! We’re #96! . . . . Now What?

Now that the dust has settled and we’ve collected our t-shirts celebrating the fact that Saint Anselm College has broken into US News and World Report’s list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in America (tied at #95), it’s time for a sober assessment of what our newfound status actually means. As recently as two years ago, Saint Anselm College was ranked #115. Last year, the college reached #106. Are we that much better than two years ago? What’s going on?

The short answer is that while we may be getting better, we’re not getting that much better that fast. In large part, our rise in the rankings has to do with modifications that US News and World Report (USN&WR) has made to its calculations. The weights in the ranking formula break down into the following manner:

Outcomes (35%)

  • social mobility (5%)
  • graduation and retention rates (22%)
  • graduation rate performance (8%)

Faculty Resources (20%)

  • class size (8%)
  • faculty salaries (7%)
  • full-time faculty with highest possible degree in field (3%)
  • student-faculty ratio (1%)
  • proportion of faculty that is full-time (1%)

Expert Opinion (20%)

  • peer assessment (15%)
  • high school counselor assessment (5%)

Financial Resources (10%)

Student Excellence (10%)

  • standardized test scores (7.75%)
  • high school class standing (2.25%)

Alumni Giving (5%)

These weights represent a change from last year:

  • Outcomes were upgraded from 30% to 35%. This was done by adding the social mobility category (5%) which is based on the graduation rates of those with Pell Grants. Graduation and retention rates were lowered from 22.5% to 22%, and the category of graduation rate performance was raised from 7.5% to 8%.
  • Expert opinion was downgraded from 22.5% to 20%. In the case of liberal arts colleges, this was mainly because the high school counselor assessment was nudged downward from 7.5% to 5%.
  • Finally, Student Excellence was pushed down from 12.5% to 10%. This change was accomplished by eliminating the acceptance rate (1.25%) and reducing the weight of standardized testing as well as class standing.

These changes undoubtedly played to our strengths and downplayed our weaknesses. First, we have always done rather well with outcomes. USN&WR measures this category rather narrowly, but in other rankings—Forbes, Money Magazine, and The Economist—which look at postgraduate experiences, Saint Anselm College always ranks fairly high in return on investment. In other words, our alumni go on to get higher-paying jobs than one would expect from looking at their backgrounds. Second, diminishing the value of the high school counselor assessment probably did us no harm; Saint Anselm College has a very good regional reputation but is largely unknown outside of New England. Third, lightening the weight of the student excellence category probably helped. Saint Anselm College is not terribly selective, while the test scores and class ranks are above average but not spectacular.

There’s no denying that the USN&WR rankings are problematic. They are a strange mix of fact and personal opinion. USN&WR claims that “hard objective data alone determine each school’s rank” but it relies on “expert opinion” which is hardly hard or objective. Moreover, the weight assigned to each category is arbitrary, the product of somebody’s opinion. One Thing after Another is not terribly original in pointing out these problems; one can find many criticisms of the rankings.

Having said all that, Saint Anselm College has earned this recognition, even if that recognition is based on faulty premises. The faculty, by and large, is conscientious and strives to do its best by students. For example, in recent years, the History Department has made a number of changes to the major—including the introduction of new courses, an emphasis on student research, and a stress on internships. And our department is not alone in making such changes. On paper, we are not a selective college. Nonetheless, we obtain good classes because half of our students come from Massachusetts which has the best public schools in the nation (New Hampshire, from which another quarter of our students hail, ranks very highly in this category as well). And we can see in the classroom the good results yielded by Admissions. The curriculum, while not without its defects, still provides students with a broad liberal arts education along with an appreciation for learning. Our alumni go on to lead valuable, productive, and fulfilling lives. Several years out, our former students earn more than graduates from our peer institutions. This blog knows all of these things first hand; One Thing after Another has taught at the college for over fifteen years, and it remains in touch with many alums. It is often satisfying to contemplate the works of our students and graduates. This blog won’t claim that Saint Anselm College has discovered some magic formula for success, but what we do here generally seems to work. We take above-average students and make them better. As we strive to improve, let’s keep in mind that we seem to be pretty good at undergraduate education; it might not be the worst idea to double-down on what we do best.

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