In the “Best Colleges 2005” issue by U.S. News & World Report released August 30, Yale University finds itself again third, following a curious tie between Harvard and Princeton for first. The issue of ranking colleges is clearly a divisive one, and I am not going to confront the debate over whether colleges should be ranked at all. I am concerned by the apparent authority of the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. One need not watch this issue fly off the shelves at any convenience store to know that entirely too many people consider these rankings the final word on which college is statistically superior. The so-called “determining factors” which place Yale third vary slightly but are weighted heavily, are less relevant to the issue of university caliber, and go largely unexplained. Just as a note, this article is not written out of any malice towards Harvard or Princeton.
The largest element in the U.S. News & World Report’s formula is peer assessment (weighted 25 percent), but all three schools share a score of 4.9, making this variable moot. Alumni giving is another 5 percent, but Princeton has a significant edge on both Harvard and Yale, who are very close. Graduation performance is also 5 percent but U.S. News does not report that data.
Moving on to the more relevant of the statistics, we come to student selectivity (weighted at 15 percent). For selectivity, Yale is indisputably given the top position in the rankings. With 99 percent of its students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and a record-low acceptance rate of 9.9 percent, according to the official admissions office statistics for the class of 2008, Yale’s incoming student body surpasses its sister schools. Furthermore, in financial resources (10 percent), defined as “average spending per full-time equivalent students on instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services, institutional support, and operations and maintenance”, Yale is second, whereas Harvard is eighth and Princeton is 12th. Simply put, Yale spends far more on its students than its sister institutions. However, though both of these statistics seem very important in evaluating a university, they are given a combined weight of only 25 percent.
The next influential element in the formula is a weighted composite of freshmen retention rates and overall graduation rate (20 percent). The difference between Harvard and Princeton is almost equal to the difference between Princeton and Yale. However, Princeton and Harvard are ranked as a tie for first, whereas Yale falls to third in this heavily weighted category.
The last and most revealing of the elements is faculty resources (also weighted 20 percent) a composite of six sub-factors. Three of these factors are the percentage of classes under 20 students, the percentage classes over 50 students, and the student to faculty ratio. Yale leads in both class size percentages and places second in the student to faculty ratio.
At this point it would seem that Yale should have a clear advantage in this statistic, but that is not the case. The remaining 50 percent of the faculty resources category is split between faculty salary (35 percent) and percentage of faculty with the highest degree (15 percent), even though these statistics are not listed in the U.S. News & World Report’s charts. Yale may have the third highest tenured-faculty salary in the Ivy League (AAUP 2004), but its associate and assistant salaries are far less than its sister institutions. For example, an associate professor at Yale makes an average of $69,500 compared to $83,500 at University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, Yale has smaller law and business schools whose professors are paid higher salaries, which hurts our average faculty salary compared to larger schools. This all explains why, even though Penn and Yale are identical in all other sub-factors (except faculty salary and highest degree), Penn is ranked first and Yale is ranked seventh. Furthermore, since the faculty resources statistic is weighted 20 percent, this rank of seventh has a considerable effect on Yale’s overall score.
Therefore, we can conclude that Yale’s lower ranking is a result of its lower faculty salary and a slight difference in graduation and retention rates. These statistics, faculty salary especially, seem trivial and minor in determining Yale’s academic caliber but are weighted 40 percent. On the other hand, Yale’s more elite student body, smaller classes, and more money spent per student, is only weighted a combined 25 percent. In terms of evaluating university status, it is common sense that the weighting in this formula is incorrect.
Moving past this statistical point, there is the issue of the responsibility that comes with authority. When any person picks up the U.S. News & World Report, despite the big chart with all the numbers, their eyes invariably look at the rank number: Yale is No. 3, Harvard and Princeton are tied for No. 1. Most people who look at the whole chart won’t know why Yale’s rank is lower than Harvard’s and Princeton’s. The U.S. News & World Report claims authority over this statistical approach to college rankings, saying “the rankings can be a powerful tool in the college admissions process.” However, by overweighting less relevant factors, the U.S. News & World Report is irresponsibly skewing the general perception of Yale University and other schools.
Arpit Garg is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.