In Rankings,Wealth Trumps Reputation
by Don Hasseltine, Vice President for College Advancement
April 1, 2011
Why is Dickinson not ranked higher in the U.S. News & World Report rankings?
You probably are quite surprised to find me writing about rankings, since the college has declined to use U.S. News or other commercial rankings for promotional purposes since 2006. Despite our best efforts to downplay these methodologically flawed rankings, President William G. Durden ’71 and other senior officers continue to receive questions about our position.
Of concern is why our position (in the mid-40s for the last five years in the National Liberal Arts College category) has not improved as the college has progressed—recently winning multiple awards for its sustainability initiatives, recognition for its standing as an international leader in global education and acclaim for its high demand as a first-choice college for selective students.
When one considers the multicriteria composite scoring system, the reason for our stagnant rank isn’t difficult to discern. Strip away the elaborate system of measuring undergraduate reputation, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation, first-year-retention and alumni-giving rates—and a much simpler method of indicating rank remains. Simply look at institutional wealth.
To show exactly what I mean, my team compiled comparable financial data on the top five institutions in each of the U.S. News ranking deciles. Institutions ranked 1-5, 11-15, 21-25, 31-35, 41-45 and 51-55 were included. The table below shows 2010-11 tuition rates, while the other categories contain data from 2009. The columns that follow the endowment figures are endowment per student, total giving per alum and average annual-fund gift per alum.
The tuition column shows that the fundamental price structure for most liberal-arts colleges is the same. The price tag doesn’t vary because of the fixed price of faculty and staff salaries, the cost of maintaining the physical plant and the academic program. With tuition costs being basically equal, it seems clear that institutional wealth dictates the order of the rankings. Simply put, a larger endowment plus more robust annual fundraising equals a higher ranking in almost all cases.
The most prominent demarcation comes at the first two deciles (rank 1-15). Endowment per student and fundraising per student dwarf the resources available for the lower deciles. Further, the chart shows that endowment per student follows a descending path. Regardless of how we might change our reputational ranking, our student-to-faculty ratio, our selectivity and so forth, the naked truth is wealth drives our position in the rankings.
Let’s take a closer look at Dickinson’s performance across this table. We perform below our peer group (41-45), and the group ranked in the next decile (51-55) also has more resources to spend on students. Without changing the wealth equation, Dickinson’s ranking in U.S. News will remain constant or might even slip a bit.
The college leadership believes quality is measured differently, of course. Our new strategic plan says it best: We would argue … “that the growth and innovation across almost all dimensions of the institution have allowed us to establish Dickinson as a college that offers students the right preparation for the 21st century—a pragmatic education for democracy. We have developed a truly distinctive and worthwhile educational program, expanded resources and repositioned the college among America’s leading institutions of higher education.”
One could readily argue that our current efforts permit us to slightly defy our U.S. News standings, as we clearly outperform our wealth. This is, however, a dangerous situation as it can occur only if the right elements—leadership, momentum and distinctive programming—are aligned.
Without a major infusion of resources—through an immense outright gift or steady annual giving beyond our peers’ and aspirants’ rates—we will not be able to reposition ourselves. As the U.S. News rankings demonstrate, the college’s future aspirations are in the collective hands of alumni, parents and friends who will determine through their level of financial commitment just how far Dickinson can take its model for a 21st-century liberal-arts education.