News and Oberlin: The Saga Continues
1987, U.S. News & World Report proclaimed Oberlin the fifth
best liberal arts college in the country. Last week, the same magazine
ranked Oberlin 23rd. Has Oberlin really slid that far downhill in
the past fifteen years?
Not necessarily, according to Al Moran, Oberlin’s Vice President
for College Relations. He said that Oberlin’s apparent decline
has had more to do with the changes U.S. News has made to its ranking
methodology over the years.
U.S. News has tweaked its methodology several times, and such tweaks
may have had a significant effect.
However, the magazine has been vague about how it computes the rankings,
making it hard to tell how great that effect has been.
“[U.S. News has] tended historically to be incomplete in its
explanation of how it uses the information that it assembles to
arrive at an overall score,” said Gary Glen Price, a professor
of education at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, who has extensively
studied college rankings.
U.S. News is also unclear about why it weights factors the way it
does — why, for example, academic reputation is worth 25 percent
of each school’s score or graduation rate is worth 20 percent.
In 1997, the National Opinion Research Center conducted an independent
study of U.S. News’s methodology, concluding that “the
weights used to combine the various measures into an overall rating
lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis.”
Changing how the data is weighted could make a major difference
in Oberlin’s final ranking. Oberlin’s selectivity score
alone would put it in the top 16 liberal arts colleges, and its
reputation would put it in the top 12.
Apparently, what is pulling down Oberlin’s overall rank are
its faculty resources (ranked 33rd), graduation rate (40th), alumni
donation rate (43rd) and financial resources (52nd).
“Any ranking system will inevitably favor some schools and
disfavor others,” Price said. “Not just by having some
be high in the rankings and other low in the rankings, but by emphasizing
qualities that one school might be strong in and another might be
weak in — and might not even seek to be strong in.”
Meanwhile, the rankings completely overlook some factors that may
be important to students.
“Many of the qualities we cherish — diversity, community
service — that’s not measured anywhere,” Moran
The editors of U.S. News stand by their product. “Certainly,
the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot
be reduced to mere numbers,”wrote Director of Data Research
Robert Morse and Associate Editor Samuel Flanigan. “But the
U.S. News rankings provide an excellent starting point for families
because they offer the opportunity to judge the relative quality
of institutions based on widely accepted indicators of excellence.”
U.S. News says that it has surveyed college officials about the
usefulness of its statistics. According to Peter Cary, one of the
editors of the college rankings, “most of the college officials
who responded described most of the U.S. News indicators as either
‘important’ or ‘very important’ measures.”
While it is unclear how much U.S. News influences prospective Oberlin
students, Oberlin has recently experienced a boom in popularity
despite its descent in the rankings. Oberlin’s acceptance
rate today is roughly half what it was in the mid-90’s, and
the test scores and class ranks of entering students are higher
than they have ever been. U.S. News itself ranks Oberlin 16th among
liberal arts college for selectivity, up from 30th only three years
Until recently Oberlin’s dean of admissions, Paul Marthers
oversaw much of that surge in selectivity. He admits that he was
mindful of U.S. News when he made admissions decisions for Oberlin.
“I spent time thinking about [the rankings],” he said.
“Not a lot of time, but you have to think about it.”
Last year, Marthers left Oberlin to become Dean of Admissions at
Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. Since 1995, Reed has boycotted
the U.S. News rankings, by refusing to supply information to the
magazine. “Higher education isn’t a commodity like cars
or refrigerators,” said Reed’s former president, Steve
Koblik. “There aren’t 25 colleges in this country that
are best for everyone.”
Marthers feels liberated now. “When I got the ballot to assess
other colleges, I just threw it away, because that’s what
we do at Reed,” he said.
Based on an informal poll, Obies seem to be similarly indifferent
to the rankings.
“In my heart, Oberlin is always number one,” first-year
Leah Frank said.