U.S. News and Oberlin: The Saga Continues
By Jesse Baer

In 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 said.
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 ago.
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.

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