According to a list of rankings released by College Factual on Tuesday, Yale is the top university in the country. But in a separate ranking, released the following day by U.S. News & World Report, Yale is slated at number three, as usual, right behind Princeton and Harvard.
Bill Phelan, co-founder CEO of College Factual — a website designed to help students and parents in the college-selection process — said the website’s rankings focus purely on data and insights derived from that data, distinguishing it from the more subjective nature of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. College Factual uses information such as freshman retention rates, student loan default rates and graduation rates to compare universities, he added. Though Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan warned against placing too much weight on college rankings, he did cite Yale’s freshman retention and graduation rates as statistics the University is proud of.
“The thing about rankings is that it’s one person or one group of people’s determination as to what factors are important about a school, so you always have to be careful,” Quinlan said. “But it’s nice to be acknowledged for some of our strengths.”
In 2014, College Factual released rankings with the University of Pennsylvania at number one, followed by Yale, and trailed by Duke University at number three. This year, the schools shuffled — with Yale topping UPenn, and Duke holding steady at third.
When asked what factors brought Yale to the top of this year’s list, Phelan said that because the top schools are already highly competitive in rankings, even the slightest differences in a couple of very specific categories can make an impact. He noted Yale’s freshman retention and graduation rates as two categories in which there was a “discernible difference,” likely resulting in Yale’s first-place ranking.
The University boasts a freshmen retention rate of 99 percent — the highest of the 1,393 schools on the College Factual list — and a graduation rate of 96.2 percent. In comparison, Penn and Duke have freshmen retention rates of 98 and 97 percent, respectively, with graduation rates of 96 and 94.5 percent.
But while Harvard and Princeton are below Yale on the College Factual list, both topped Yale on the U.S. News & World Report list.
The methodology used by U.S. News & World Report for its rankings incorporates quantitative data — such as retention rates and alumni giving — but it also relies on more qualitative, subjective data in a way that the College Factual rankings do not. For example, U.S. News & World Report calculates “academic peer scores” for colleges, which is based on assessments given to administrators at peer institutions. According to the U.S. News & World Report website, this assessment “allows top academics — presidents, provosts and deans of admissions — to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”
Phelan said that although this type of assessment may be appealing in theory, it typically is not useful in practice.
“Think about the president of Yale, and imagine whether the president of Yale is filling out a survey at his desk about his opinion of the other colleges,” Phelan said. “It’s a subjective survey that’s done, and we know that that survey is often done by administrative assistants, so in our case we remove that bias completely.”
Phelan described the assessment as a type of “brand perception,” adding that it would not be advisable to pick the winner of the Super Bowl based on the opinions of the other coaches in the NFL. It is best to let the performance of the colleges and the numbers speak for themselves, he said, rather than including subjective perspectives.
Although the College Factual rankings are known for utilizing more quantitative data, some experts maintain that students will continue to defer to the well-established U.S. News & World Report rankings when assessing schools. U.S. News began ranking colleges in 1983, whereas this is College Factual’s second year releasing full rankings.
Michael Goran, director and founder of IvySelect College Counseling, said that despite College Factual’s unique methodology, U.S. News & World Report is still “the big kahuna” in the college rankings sphere.
“I think it’s going to be hard to knock U.S. News out of the number one spot,” Goran said. “That being said, when you look at schools and where students are going to apply, the usual line you get from college admissions consultants is to take the rankings with a grain of salt. It may be a good way to start looking at the relative reputations of schools, and to get a handle on schools you may not have thought of or missed, but ultimately it’s just a starting place.”
Goran added that individual qualities make a school stand out to prospective applicants. With Yale, he added, these aspects include the quality of the undergraduate education and the residential college system. Rankings like College Factual and U.S. News & World Report attempt to use a theoretical objective methodology and apply it to a process that — at the end of the day — is subjective to each student, he said.
Five of seven freshmen interviewed said they paid no heed to Yale’s ranking when applying to the University last winter. Anthony Geritano ’19 said that while he did take a look at the rankings of top colleges before applying to Yale, the rankings in no way factored into his decision to apply to the University.
“Yale was the only school ranked even remotely that high that I even applied to, besides Princeton,” Geritano said. “So my decision to come here was not dependent on the rankings. It’s definitely nice to know that Yale is ranked so highly, but it puts a little pressure on me — not going to lie — to take advantage of all that’s offered here.”
This year, the rankings of Princeton, Harvard and Yale on the U.S. News & World Report list are exactly the same as last year’s.