Ranking Colleges

Colleges love to hate rankings, especially these days when every month seems to bring a new “report card” on a different aspect of college life. For Barry Mills, these ubiquitous lists and ratings are neither the enemy nor the indispensible guides for students that they claim to be.

Some college and university presidents condemn rankings. They say colleges simply cannot be measured and evaluated the way Consumer Reports rates appliances. Is that a fair statement?

It’s not unfair, but I’m not as down on the rankings as some. People are entitled to information about these places. We shouldn’t be opaque; we should be giving people information so they can make decisions.

The problem arises when people say, “Well, I only want to go to the #1 school” or “the #3 school.” That’s a mistake. But having lots of information about these places is useful. I think it’s important to look at rankings in the aggregate. If you do that, you’ll get a fairly good sense of a particular college or university.

Is there a real difference between #1 and #5, or #1 and #10 in U.S. News or in the Princeton Review? Probably not much. Is there a difference between #1 and #40? Yes, in that case, there’s probably a reason why the numbers are so different.

How important is money as a factor in the rankings?

It’s huge, although some rankings are more about money than others. You have the perverse consequence that you are ranked higher if you spend more money per student, and so what does that mean in terms of the cost of college?

On the other hand, is it good to have small classes? Yes. Is it good to have more faculty for our students? Yes. Is it good to pay your faculty competitively or more than competitively? Sure. But all of that ultimately translates into money.

Do rankings change the way a college sets its priorities?

It’s possible, but it’s not anything I’ve paid a lot of attention to in setting priorities for Bowdoin. Do I worry about rankings? I absolutely worry about them. But have we made decisions just to improve our place in rankings? No.

Do we aspire to have more small classes? Yes, because that’s good for Bowdoin. Do we aspire to have a student-faculty ratio lower than nine-to-one because that would be better for the rankings? Honestly, no. Do we aspire to have a higher alumni-giving rate because that will improve our ranking? No, we aspire to have a higher alumni-giving rate because it will make the College more successful. Could we have 5,000 more applications at Bowdoin in order to lower our acceptance rates substantially? Sure. But why would we want to have 5,000 more applications from students who aren’t going to get in? What’s the point? We want more applications from students who should be at Bowdoin.

Of the various constituencies at Bowdoin—prospective students, current students, parents, alumni—who cares most about rankings?

I think our students know we are a really great place. They’re here and they can see for themselves. I don’t take that for granted but it’s pretty much a given. So, it’s the competitiveness of these rankings with alumni that keeps me up at night. Bowdoin alumni are competitive. They want to be the best, they’re incredibly proud of their College and they want it to be ranked really high, so it matters a lot to alumni.

Bowdoin is often commended in rankings for things like best quality of life, best food, best dorms, and the happiest students. Not exactly a focus on academic rigor. Does that bother you?

No, it doesn’t bother me because I know we’re academically rigorous. I spend every day here and I understand how hard our students work. I see the demands our faculty have on their own lives and the demands they impose on our students. When people write about us I think they just assume the academic rigor and they say, “And they have great food,” “And they have great dormitories.” I think the message it sends is: “Here’s an academically rigorous place where the people are actually happy.”

Let’s talk about a couple of lists where Bowdoin doesn’t do well. We don’t even show up in the PayScale return-on-investment rankings. Why is that?

Because our alumni don’t fill out their surveys. The PayScale analysis is done on very small data sets and right now, our alumni aren’t participating at the rate that would allow us to be in the rankings. You actually have to go to the PayScale website and fill out the survey, and not everyone wants to do that.

But I know from experience that our alumni are actually quite successful in all walks of life. Thankfully, many of them are making a very nice living, and they are very generous in supporting the College. So, I’m not worried about the return our alumni are seeing from their investment in Bowdoin. Would I like more alumni to go to the PayScale website and fill out the survey? Sure, but it’s not at the top of my list.

In another case, The New York Times recently published rankings aimed at measuring economic diversity at colleges and universities. The rankings were based on the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and Bowdoin was in the middle of the pack. What does that say about our commitment to economic diversity?

In Bowdoin’s recent history, about 14 percent of our students have been recipients of Pell Grants, and the College has grown over that period. So, if you apply that percentage to a larger number of students, we’re actually providing more opportunity to more students over that period. That fact was lost in the Times article.

Pell Grants are available to families with the lowest incomes in America. But there are middle-income families eager to have their students come to Bowdoin—families that aren’t on the Times chart. At Bowdoin, we not only support the 14 percent of our population who are Pell Grant recipients, but we’re also supporting a lot of students—the sons and daughters and family members of police officers, and teachers, and nurses; people who work in all kinds of interesting and important fields who don’t make a ton of money. There are only so many dollars to spend, and at the end of the day you have to balance your checkbook and decide how to allocate those resources. I think our policy of supporting a lot of low-income students and a lot of middle income students is right for Bowdoin.

Economic diversity is one of the factors the Obama administration is looking at for its own focus on colleges. What are your thoughts about these rankings?

If one looks at the factors the Department of Education is seeking to publicize through these rankings, the fact is that the information is already out there. So, for example, graduation rates—they’re already out there in many, many different rankings. The percentage of students who graduate with debt—that’s out there with rankings. Average debt and retention rates—also out there. So it’s curious to me that the government is interested in getting itself mobilized to generate all these data that are actually already in the public domain.

Here’s what I worry about: If you have the Department of Education doing the ranking, then we politicize or create the potential for politics to enter into these rankings. In the long run, I think that complicates rankings even more. Different administrations can have a different focus on what’s important in higher education, so the rankings can change based on who is elected. I don’t think that’s a helpful way for families to get this information.

I would rather see lots and lots of information out there. People can be educated about how to go find it. It’s an exaggeration to say they can’t.

Rankings provide a lot of data on things like class size and SAT scores but aren’t there some things that are intangible when it comes to selecting a college?

It’s clearly the decision of an individual student as to where they will succeed and be happy. That’s the intangible. That’s what everybody is really trying to figure out—it’s the match, “How do I match correctly?” “How do I find the right school for me?” And rankings can’t do that. All rankings can do is give you information. Then, every student—along with their families, along with their counselors, along with their advisors, along with their friends—has to seek out the right place for them.

So next summer, are you going to sleep easier in the days before the rankings are released?

I suspect that the report card about my last year will be relevant to me, but the good news is, however it shakes out, all the phone calls won’t be coming to me. And that’s a good thing.