At the Olympics, few athletes compete for the Bronze medal. There is no question that a Bronze medal is a high honor, and Olympians who return home can be justly proud of a third place finish. But the true goal has always been to achieve a gold medal, to be the best in the world in a single discipline. Although taking first place in the US News rankings may not be quite the same as an Olympic medal, college and universities contend for higher rankings with similar competitiveness.
For almost a decade, Swarthmore has been a contender for the gold medal — the spot as the top ranked liberal arts college — and since 2002, Swarthmore has fallen short to either Amherst or Williams College. In the entire history of the rankings, only these three liberal arts colleges have been ranked in the top three, but lately Swarthmore seems to have been unable to rise in the rankings. You probably know that there are many problems with the “US News” rankings; their methodology has been frequently criticized and many college counselors suggest that the promotion of a single ranking system discourages high school students from exploring college environments that would be the best choice for them personally and instead leads to blindly relying on these rankings.
Despite the many reasons that the rankings should not matter, both to prospective students and to college administrators, they remain and are likely to remain a significant factor in the admissions process for both groups. A high ranking attracts more applications, particularly among international students who might not be able to personally visit US universities, and a rise in the rankings can even lead to increased alumni donations. So, despite rhetoric from college presidents and deans of admissions, rankings matter. The more interesting question is whether a drive to increase Swarthmore’s rankings lies behind some choices in the new Strategic Plan.
Fortunately, US News publishes a detailed explanation of their methodology in terms of how they score these rankings, which are made up of: 22.5% national reputation as shown by surveys sent to college presidents, 20% retention of students, 20% faculty resources, which includes average class size and professor salaries, 15% student selectivity, including SAT scores and class ranks of the entering class, 10% financial resources, spending that does not include new dorms or spending on sports, and the remainder of the ranking is related to alumni giving rate.
Will any of the directives of the Strategic Directions change the rankings?
One of the most prominent features of the plan is the proposal for the Swarthmore community to create and fund an Institute for Liberal Arts, which would gather together scholars and thinkers to articulate the value of a liberal arts education in an era in which the liberal arts has been increasingly criticized for its cost per student as well as its failure to provide more directly practical vocational training. Aside from the irony of creating a new intellectually focused institution to defend another such institution, it is difficult to imagine how some aspects of this institute will improve the lives of current students, who, after all, have chosen to attend Swarthmore and so probably have bought into the idea of liberal arts as a valuable educational model.
But at least in terms of Swarthmore “national reputation” ranking, an Institute for Liberal Arts could do a world of good. Gathering conferences of scholars and leaders of liberal arts college presidents would increase Swarthmore’s recognition when these leaders fill out “US News” surveys. This is not to say that the Institute for Liberal Arts would not fill a void in the rhetoric surrounding higher education — if fully funded and well-staffed, it could. But it is worth considering whether the Institute may serve the less noble objective of rankings inflation as well.
Other significant efforts as part of the Strategic Plan include substantial renovations or redesigns of Hicks, Papazian, and Martin, aging academic buildings that lack facilities that professors and students now demand. In terms of non-academic buildings, the plan points to the need for a new or expanded fitness center as well as a desire to “imaginatively repurpose” Sharples and the Tarble student center.
One way to look at this lopsided choice of development spending is through the lens of the rankings. Spending on academic buildings counts as part of the financial resources score, while spending on student centers and the fitness center does not.
Of course, it is difficult to imagine that any of these major decisions for Swarthmore’s future would be made based entirely on a wish to raise Swarthmore’s ranking. Clearly, many considerations led to the decision to build new academic buildings, including legitimate educational needs. Additionally, many of the programs that would be good for Swarthmore would also be good for Swarthmore’s US News ranking, making it difficult to differentiate between decisions motivated by student need and decisions motivated by rankings. However, the drive for rankings — beneficial or not — should not be discounted entirely in understandings of the strategic plan. For Swarthmore College as much as for Olympians, first place may be the most pressing goal.
Steven is a sophomore. You can reach him at email@example.com.