A Different Set of College Rankings

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last year the infamous U.S. News and World Report college rankings, as well as other similar rankings, had prompted Al Bloom and many other college presidents to publish an official statement of disapproval. Yet another set of rankings has been published, and Swarthmore lands near the top again: but this time, for different reasons.

Forbes.com and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) have published “America’s Best Colleges 2008”, where the College places fourth behind Princeton University, California Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. In the US News & World Report ranking, Swarthmore places as the third college, behind Williams and Amherst. Universities are ranked separately.

CCAP offers an alternative set of rankings that its director, Richard Vedder, claims is “monopolized by one publication, U.S. News and World Report.” In its methodology report, the staff at CCAP emphasizes that their rankings emphasize student reactions and consumer concerns such as debt burden.

Indeed. Instead of relying on peer assessment by other colleges and rates of alumni giving, CCAP turns to student assessments at RateMyProfessor.com. Instead of relying on class size and student selectivity, they look at copies of Who’s Who in America and recipients of national academic prizes to determine the quality of its alumni faculty.

Despite these changes, the College has already stated that they will not support college rankings as they are.

“We commit not to mention U.S. News or similar rankings in any of our new publications, since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number.”

But there are some surprises on the list at Forbes.com because of its changes in methodology. Centre College in Danville, KY ranks 13th on the list, with high ratings for student satisfaction, alumni and faculty success, and debt incurred after graduation. As a student, Josh Stevens, says on the site: “The whole community—students, faculty and staff—comes together, and it just sort of hugs you and lifts you up to your best potential.”

And Northwestern University is at 11th place, above the University of Chicago, Pomona College, and Brown University.

Vedder admits in his commentary that still “there is an inherent absurdity in ranking colleges and universities with mock precision from first to 569th.” However, CCAP stands behind their results, which despite correlating with U.S. News and World Report “well above .60,” presents a much different picture of undergraduate schools than other publications.

Al Bloom and other presidents might support this departure in that at least it promotes discussion.

Their statement, after all, ends with this: “We recognize that no degree of protest may make [rankings] soon disappear, and hope, therefore, that further discussion will help shape them in ways that will press us to move in ever more socially and educationally useful directions.”


  1. I am of two minds on the Forbes rankings. First, the disparity between rankings for schools between the two lists (e.g., UPenn ranks at 6 on the Us News and World Report Rankings, while it stands at 61st on the Forbes rankings) suggests that something in the methodology used to formulate the lists is very different between the two schools. This is troubling to me. While I believe “student reactions and consumer concern” (in addition to happiness) are certainly factors to be recognized, perhaps a solution would be for the two organizations to combine their data and implement a rigorous methodology that works for the data.

    Second, I am not wholly against the raised rankings of some schools that may promote colleges formerly low on US News’ rankings, such as happiness, because in addition, schools like the service academies teach and attract students with certain hard-to-quantify qualities. One of them is happiness; another, a “willingness to lead and serve others in a military capacity while getting a stellar academic education” (from cousin who went to West Point).

    It’s nice that Swarthmore is so high up on this new list of rankings, but the college’s stance on these rankings is right. They are not to be taken as a single, gold standard.

  2. I am very happy that Forbes has chosen to put forth a new set of rankings. Lots of people complain year after year about how US News and World Report rankings are misleading. While it might be nice if US News just stopped ranking everyone, the Best Colleges issue makes enough money and publicity that it’s not going to happen. Since US News isn’t going to stop ranking colleges, and I doubt people are suddenly going to stop caring about them, the best thing that can happen is for enough different rankings to appear to give high school students a better-rounded view of college education. Forbes doesn’t pretend on their website to have the final word on higher education. They just want to provide a different list with different criteria. I think the fact that some colleges appear at vastly different places on the two lists emphasizes that the two organizations have chosen to pay attention to different variables, which is exactly as it should be. I’m happy that Swarthmore Admissions doesn’t publish rankings; they’re right that higher education can’t be reduced to one number. It can’t be reduced to two numbers either, but surely having two numbers is better than having one.

    Plus, the more rankings they’re are, the more fun provided to people interested in statistics. Does Forbes grant easy access to their numbers?

  3. Seriously, the methodology on the Forbes list is ABSURD. Rate my professors? Really?? Different schools use rate my professors in different ways (i.e. some schools barely use it because they have their own systems, like us if our system actually worked), and they could have just surveyed students about their satisfaction if they took their rankings seriously at all. And the Who’s Who list has been debunked BY FORBES as bs that will put in pretty much anybody who’s willing to pay for it. Plus, analyzing who won’t have debt will favor schools with wealthier students (who naturally wouldn’t have debt). Why not actually measure financial aid? It seems like they probably just tried out a ton of random junk statistics until they had a list that was just the right amount of close to the US News for some consistency but different enough to be worthwhile/surprising.

  4. Rankings are a lot like car accidents- nobody wants to be involved with them, but everyone feels compelled to look. It would be nice if the national association of colleges and universities (or whatever’s it called) began to compile its own rankings and college websites referred students to that list instead of USN&WR, Forbes, Atlantic, Princeton Review, or whomever.

  5. How is having Northwestern ranked higher than UChicago, Pomona, and Brown weird? Those schools are all pretty much on the same level.

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