About That Article on Washington and Jefferson College...

The real reasons why that school dropped from 91st to 106th.

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I've got a few corrections I think I should make regarding Inside Higher Ed's thesis in its "Potemkin Rankings" article. That story argues that recent changes in Washington and Jefferson College's academic data should have resulted in the school rising in the U.S. News America's Best Colleges rankings instead of falling slightly as it did (from 91st in the 2004 edition to 106th in the 2008 edition in the liberal arts colleges category).

Washington and Jefferson raised its tuition significantly from $23,260 in 2003-2004 to $29,532 in 2007-2008, an increase of 27 percent. The college also showed gains in its admissions data, including its acceptance rate and SAT scores as well as a small rise in faculty resources. All of these factors are input measures into the college process.

So, why did Washington and Jefferson fall in the rankings? Contrary to what the article implies, the U.S. News rankings award improvement in outcomes measures more than gains in inputs. Washington and Jefferson's graduation and retention rank fell from 69th place in 2004 to 104th in 2008, which is a significant decline in a factor that counts for 20 percent of the overall ranking. The main reason for this change was that the college's six-year graduation rate dropped from 73 percent to 68 percent in this same period. So, while the school was rejecting many more students and the ones they admitted had slightly better test scores and high school class standing, it was graduating a smaller proportion of them. This decline in the six-year graduation rate also had a negative impact on the college's graduation rate performance—a measure of how well a school is doing in graduating its students, given their credentials. Its graduation rate "overperformance" (5 percent of the overall ranking) fell 3 percentage points. Another factor that hindered Washington and Jefferson was that as a result of the changes in the Carnegie Classifications, four colleges moved into the liberal arts category ahead of Washington and Jefferson: the United States Naval Academy, the United States Military Academy, Berea College, and St. Mary's College.

Bottom line: If Washington and Jefferson had maintained its graduation rate during this time, it would have risen in the rankings. U.S. News is emphasizing the measurable outcomes indicators, not inputs to the process like the acceptance rate. This case actually exposes a misperception that many college presidents and admission deans have about our rankings. They think that if they reject a much greater percentage of their applicants, it will immediately translate into a rise in the rankings. That is not the case. What counts in the rankings is whether the students a school does admit end up being educated and graduating with diplomas, which is what the accountability movement is all about.