Reflections on College Rankings

28 September 2023

At Carleton, we tend not to pay much attention to college rankings. Of course, plenty of other people do! As we move towards completion of our strategic planning process, it’s worth reflecting on what these external measures tell us about the higher ed landscape.

US News made some significant changes to its ranking methodology this year. It announced in May that for 2024 it would eliminate the categories of alumni giving, percent of faculty with terminal degree, class size and high school standing. Several of these are categories in which Carleton has typically excelled, which may explain why we dropped a bit in the 2024 list. Carleton is ranked #9 by US News this year, as we were two years ago, compared to last year’s #6. Carleton remains #1 in Undergraduate Teaching for the 13th year in a row, though we are tied with Amherst and Pomona, the first time that other institutions have tied with Carleton on this particular measure. 

In an even more striking example of how changes in methodology can impact rankings, in this year’s Wall Street Journal /College Pulse list Carleton moved from #35 last year to #218 for 2024. The WSJ shifted from more traditional “input” measures like a college’s financial resources and student test scores to a greater focus on outcomes, specifically financial outcomes: initial post-graduation salaries and the WSJ’s own measure of value-added social mobility. As a liberal arts college that is proud to send many alumni on to graduate school, and into fields like journalism, the arts, and the public sector, Carleton does not do as well in starting-salary statistics as schools that send a greater proportion of students into consulting or engineering. 

A similar emphasis on cost and social mobility is reflected in The New York Times, which recently updated its influential College Access Index. When the NYT first published this information in 2014, with an update in 2017, it helped focus attention on colleges’ and universities’ relative levels of socioeconomic diversity. The NYT index is reflective of the same trend we see in the WSJ, and also in recent Washington Monthly rankings: an increasing focus on looking at the cost of a college relative to its success in providing an economic benefit to students.

At Carleton we don’t use rankings as a driver of our decision making, but it is important to recognize that this trend of reducing emphasis on traditional markers of academic quality like selectivity, high school class rank, and test scores may in the long run have an impact on student awareness of Carleton as a school with a reputation for academic strength. In addition, the new emphasis on earnings potential and “return on investment” runs counter to the message we try to convey about the inherent value of a liberal arts education.

Focusing on Carleton’s year-to-year movement in these various rankings would not be a good use of institutional energy. However, rankings collectively do provide some valuable diagnostic information about broad trends that impact the perception of top liberal arts colleges as a sector. We may not like the existence of rankings, or all of the approaches that they take, but they both reflect and shape the environment in which students make decisions about college. 

In fact, many of the trends noted above reinforce the importance of the major goals of our strategic direction: increasing the competitiveness of our financial aid program in order to become more accessible to students from all income levels, particularly Pell-eligible/ low-income students; ensuring that students appreciate the strength of our academic program and understand the value of a broad-based liberal arts education; and creating more visible pathways between a Carleton degree and the impressive array of careers in which Carleton alumni are successful. Pursuing these goals will help secure Carleton’s reputation and ability to attract strong students in the future—regardless of where we land in any rankings.

Featured in Carleton Today, September 28, 2023