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.
Once again, Swarthmore was named the Best Value College by Princeton Review in its ranking of 650 private and public colleges across the country. The college won the same accolade when the “Top 10 Best Value Private Colleges” list was last published in 2007. Harvard University came in a close second, followed by Wesleyan College.
The criteria for “best value” were based on 30 quantitative assessments from data provided by participating colleges and qualitative assessments from student opinions culled from a survey used to publish Princeton Review’s book “Best 371 Colleges.” Out of these colleges, Swarthmore undoubtedly stood out because of its commitment to meet 100% of demonstrated need in financial aid, according to the Princeton Review publisher, Robert Franek.
Princeton Review’s “best value” ranking was developed in 2007 after a survey they conducted revealed that college-bound students were strongly concerned about their ability to pay for college. “We thought that there has to be a way we can create a resource for students and families that will call out schools that have done an exceptional job about making their schools tuition affordable for students… we hadn’t thought about it specifically [so] that we could say which schools [were] great academic values,” Franek said.
In the past, Swarthmore administrators have critiqued the usefulness of these sorts of rankings. Former President Al Bloom made a commitment to avoid publicizing Swarthmore’s position in these rankings in a statement he made with several other peer schools in 2007. In this statement, he said, “We are concerned about the inevitable biases in any single ranking formula, about the admissions frenzy, and the way in which rankings can contribute to that frenzy and to a false sense that educational success or fit can be ranked in a single numerical list.” Under Bloom, Swarthmore’s rank in lists created by U.S. News or similar publications was not publicized in the Admissions Office’s publications.
Current President Rebecca Chopp holds similar views of these rankings. “I agree that there is a true abundance of excellent higher education institutions in America and when one really studies the rankings in which the formulas from which they are derived are represented, you see that the differences, for example, in schools ranked 1, 5, and 7 may be minuscule and largely a measure of endowment,” she said in an email.
However, she had permitted the admissions office to publish Swarthmore’s status on the admissions website, according to Dean Bock, prior to the decisions of these rankings. The college’s ranking is not listed in print publications, but is limited to some forms of outreach including mailings to high school sophomores and juniors. Bock said that he supports both Bloom’s and Chopp’s views.
Franek said that he was not aware of criticisms from the educational institutions. “Rankings are important, reporting information that is difficult to find, whether in a ranking, rating format, or long narrative format. Our best value colleges list is much more than just a list; they are points of data that students can access for free,” he said.
Although relevant information is often provided freely on each college’s websites, such as the average amount of financial aid, Franek argued that the Princeton Review offers an aggregated list for the convenience of prospective students. “We’re an expert on higher ed. It’s a difficult task for college-bound students to find a clear way to cull down that list,” he said.
Bock said, “The timing of the ranking is interesting as it comes after the official deadline for applications. This year we did see a significant increase in the number of prospective students inquiring about a Swarthmore education. My guess is that some of this could be attributed to last year’s ranking as many high school juniors begin their college searches around this time of year.”
Princeton Review teamed with USA Today to create a database of the colleges and universities surveyed and included a narrative about the top schools. Swarthmore is packaged as being “among the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the country. The academic experience here is full of stress and anxiety. The workload can be harrowing. At the same time, Swatties are a bright and creative lot, and they thrive on the crucible experience.”
Swarthmore has placed well in other rankings including the most popular U.S. News and World Report list for Best College and Universities, which put the college back into 3rd place again.