Reflecting on Rankings

September 18, 2023 

Fall is a glorious time at Washington and Lee.  Students return to campus, classes and athletic contests resume, and the mornings are delightfully cool.  It is also the season of college rankings, which drop from the press like autumn leaves descending on the Blue Ridge mountains.

The ostensible purpose of rankings is to guide students and families who are making important decisions about which college or university to attend.  U.S. News and World Report pioneered the genre in the 1980s.  The subsequent proliferation of rankings has bred confusion rather than enlightenment.  Some publications lump together research universities and liberal arts colleges, which are fundamentally incomparable types of institution, on a single scale.  Even rankings that focus on liberal arts colleges disagree with each other, sometimes dramatically, leaving readers to wonder which of them to believe.  These disagreements result from the fact that publications use different criteria to evaluate schools, making it difficult to interpret the various rankings.  And individual publications change their own criteria frequently, preventing meaningful comparisons over time.

Let’s consider the case of Washington and Lee.

The Wall Street Journal – which is one of the publications that combines different types of institution on a single list – just ranked us the 9th best liberal arts college in the country.  This is a notable improvement on our 25th position in this category in 2022.  W&L leapt upward because the WSJ changed its criteria to emphasize student outcomes and student satisfaction, on which we excel.  The WSJ recognized us as the #1 liberal arts college for learning opportunities, learning facilities, career preparation, and the likelihood of our students to recommend Washington and Lee.  I’m proud to be known for setting the national standard on those important measures.

U.S. News, on the other hand, just ranked us 21st among liberal arts colleges.  This comes as a surprise, at first glance, since we have been in the top 15 in this ranking for at least a decade and were 11th last year.  But U.S. News changed its criteria significantly.  And with just three points (out of 100) separating #11 and #21, even small changes in methodology create large fluctuations in the ranking. U.S. News eliminated small class size and deemphasized graduation rate – two key measures of educational quality on which we ranked #1 among our peers last year.  U.S. News also increased the weight it places on the percentage of low-income students at each school.  W&L made socio-economic diversity an explicit priority in our 2018 strategic plan.  But U.S. News relies upon old data, counting the Pell recipients who arrived on campus from 2013 to 2016.  At that time, Washington and Lee had among the fewest Pell-eligible students in the country, resulting in our ranking of 134th on this factor.  Since then, we have increased the number of low-income students at W&L by more than 30%.  This substantial progress, on which we continue to build, will not be fully reflected in the U.S. News ranking for another decade, due to the lag in their data.

The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News are two of the best-known rankings, but there are many others, each employing its own methodology to reach its own conclusions.  Among national liberal arts colleges, W&L is ranked 10th by Forbes, 8th by Washington Monthly, 6th by College Raptor, 11th by Niche, and 12th by College Consensus.  There are also quite a few specialized rankings.  Niche ranks us #1 among liberal arts colleges for best professors.  And the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ranks us #1 among liberal arts colleges with respect to free speech on campus. 

What are we to make of all this?

Washington and Lee enjoys an outstanding reputation.  We reliably fall in the top 20, and quite often in the top 10, of every reasonably credible national ranking of liberal arts colleges.  We are frequently recognized as one of the best schools of all with respect to factors directly related to educational quality, student satisfaction, and alumni success.

Prospective students and families should use rankings only as a very rough guide to the college search process.  It is worth knowing which schools are highly regarded, but rankings alone cannot tell an individual student which college or university will be the best fit in terms of location, size, character, and culture. Visiting campuses and talking to current students and faculty is the best way to determine the schools that feel right in ways rankings cannot quantify.

W&L never manages to rankings.  We are guided by our mission and our values, rather than by external judgments that change frequently, conflict with each other, and often fail to measure what is most important.  We devote our attention and energy to providing the best possible education for our students today, and to the opportunities we have to improve Washington and Lee for the students of the future.

What do we regard as most important and how do we measure it?

The heart of our educational enterprise is talented students learning from exceptional teachers in small classes.  Outside the classroom, a host of dedicated employees support and mentor our students in countless ways.  These academic and extra-curricular activities take place in first-rate facilities.  This highly personal education is made possible by generous support from parents and alumni.

The desire of talented students to come to Washington and Lee shows up in the number and quality of applications we receive and in the percentage of students who accept our offers of admission, which are at all-time highs.  The enthusiasm of current students is reflected in our retention rate and in their expressed satisfaction and willingness to recommend W&L.  The success of our students, which is a testament not only to them but also to our faculty and staff, is manifest in their graduation rate and post-graduate outcomes.  We have very few peers on these critical measures.  Alumni express their appreciation for the education they received at Washington and Lee, and their desire to provide the same opportunities for current students, by volunteering for and donating to the university.  Financial contributions to W&L last year were the 2nd highest in school history, and our endowment – which enhances the education of every student by covering 40% of our expenses – is the 11th largest per student among liberal arts colleges.  We take pride in using these resources wisely, with the lowest ratio of administrative costs to educational spending among top colleges.

These measures give us great confidence in the present strength and future prospects of Washington and Lee.  But some of what matters most cannot be measured.  We are distinguished by our Honor System and our tradition of student self-governance.  We are distinguished by the Speaking Tradition and our culture of warmth and civility.  And we are distinguished by the lives led by our alumni.  We know the financial return on their investment in a W&L education is outstanding – a recent Georgetown University study determined that our graduates enjoy the 2nd highest net present value over the course of their careers at $1.58 million.  But more important and impossible to measure are the personal habits and character Washington and Lee alumni develop in Lexington, the lifelong relationships they form on campus, and the leadership they demonstrate in their communities.

Rankings will continue to drift on the autumn breeze like the leaves, but they are equally ephemeral.  What abides at Washington and Lee is our commitment to our mission and values.  We are fiercely devoted to educational excellence and to improving our already exceptional school, each and every year, for the benefit of current students and the many rising generations to come.