New York is my campus, Fordham is my school, & rankings don’t matter
by Jack Archambault
In his annual address to the University community regarding Fordham’s standing in the latest college rankings, Fr. McShane led with an old favorite: “I am writing to report on this year’s University rankings, in which I’m afraid we’ve had mixed success.” The Rankings Email always begins with this line, or some variation of it, such as 2018’s “I am writing to report that it has been a mixed week for Fordham in the rankings,” or 2017’s tragic, “Unfortunately, Fordham dipped from 60 to 61.”
In this year’s Rankings Email, Fr. McShane pointed out that Fordham actually rose in most rankings, from 203 to 176 in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education and from 148 to 141 in Forbes top colleges. The news was less peachy in the U.S. News & World Report, where we dropped from 70 to 74, the very same rankings in which we dipped from 60 to 61 back in 2017.
But what does any of it mean? Are we the 74th best college in America? The 141st? 176th? Or should we focus on being, as Fr. McShane points out, “the fifth highest-ranked Jesuit university in the country”? College rankings are much fraught-over, and from the standpoint of the colleges themselves, that makes sense. Rankings are an easy thing to point to and say, “School A is better than school B”.
But what does “better” even mean, and how do U.S. News, WSJ, and Forbes make that determination?
To begin to answer that question, let’s go back to 1988, the year that U.S. News began publishing their annual rankings of the top national universities. From 1988 to 1995, the company ranked the top 25 universities in their “America’s Best Colleges” issue. The list expanded after 1995 and is now separated into two main sets of rankings: national universities and national liberal arts colleges. Since 2008, Fordham has hovered in the 50s and 60s of the national universities rankings, peaking at number 53 in 2012 before beginning a steady fall that finds us in the 74th spot in the 2020 rankings (U.S. News dates their rankings for the year after which they are released).
So how are the U.S. News (and WSJ and Forbes) rankings calculated? Essentially, they score colleges in different categories. Common ones include faculty and financial resources, graduation rate, retention rate, and salary after graduation. These categories are all weighted differently. Forbes, for example, weighs on-time graduation rate as 12.5%, whereas WSJ weighs it as 11%. That may seem like a small difference, but it is important to remember that not all rankings use the same categories, either. For instance, Forbes considers student satisfaction (20%) while U.S. News looks at alumni giving (5%) and expert opinion (20%). According to U.S. News, the latter is determined by “a two-year weighted average of ratings from top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – who rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished).” This survey has been so poorly received by some that in 2007, a group of 12 presidents of liberal arts colleges sent out a letter urging their peers to refuse to fill it out.
As a result of this varying criteria, all rankings differ. At Fordham, you might hear someone refer to the school as “the Harvard of the Bronx”. A great compliment(?) … as long as we’re going by the WSJ rankings. For a reader of U.S. News, in which Harvard ranks second, we would find ourselves behind Manhattan College. Looking at the niche.com rankings, being the Harvard of the Bronx would put us behind not only Manhattan, but Lehman and Monroe as well.
To add to this, each company’s puts out multiple sets of rankings each year. U.S. News, for example, puts out their best national universities, best liberal arts colleges, best historically black colleges and universities, and best colleges for internships, among others. The result of this is that each year, just about anyone can make a claim to being the number one college in something. The WSJ alone ranks UCLA as the nation’s top public university, Harvard as the top private one, Penn as the top large university, and William & Mary as the top midsize public one. And what kind of person would I be if I didn’t recognize Eastern Connecticut State University, the top public, midsize, standardized test-optional, rural, liberal arts college in America?
And if you’re thinking, “That’s ridiculous – no college would ever advertise an accomplishment so niche,” I would direct you to the website of Agnes Scott College, which proudly declares itself the “No. 1 Most Innovative School in the Country.”
In all seriousness, none of this is meant as a jab at Eastern Connecticut State, or Agnes Scott, which I’m sure is quite innovative. Rather it is to say that college rankings, for all their prestige, are more or less pointless to the students already enrolled in those schools. I can understand why Fr. McShane, and other administrators, care about them. They can be a reflection of public perception, which does matter. But to students, other things – like finding a place you enjoy being and growing as a person – matter more. So here’s my one suggestion for all of you who will be here next year: when you get The Rankings Email, read it and appreciate Fr. McShane’s concern. Then say, “College rankings are an inexact science with far too much meaning attached to them,” and throw it in the trash.