GW fell three spots in national rankings last week because of relative slips in student graduation, retention and selectivity rates, the report’s author said.
The drop to No. 57 brought the University below all but two of its peer schools. But experts say rankings combine many factors about schools and don’t necessarily have much of an impact on how people perceive an institution.
Falling by seven spots since 2011 is a “slight downward trend,” said Robert Morse, who compiles the annual U.S. News & World Report list.
The University climbed to No. 50 in 2011 before being booted from the list the next year, after officials admitted to inflating admissions data for more than a decade. Last year, GW landed at the No. 54 spot.
Eleven of GW’s 14 peer schools boasted higher four-year graduation rates. Georgetown University has a four-year graduation rate of 91 percent, one of the highest in the country and about 16 percentage points higher than GW.
The rankings are based on data from the 2014 admissions cycle. Among its peers, GW has the lowest student selectivity rate that year — admitting 43 percent of applicants — which puts it at the same level as Southern Methodist University.
Morse said he saw “a bunch of small changes” at GW that factored into its slight decline.
He said the University performed relatively lower in the peer assessment category, in which top college administrators rate schools’ undergraduate academic quality, as well as in student selectivity — the relative measure of how much competition applicants face for admission — and graduation rate.
But he noted that “it’s a very small movement from the U.S. News perspective.”
Sixteen factors are included in the rankings, each with a different weight. For example, faculty resources makes up 20 percent of the ranking.
GW is compared to other national universities, meaning it offers degrees up to the doctoral level and is considered a research institution. Princeton University led the category for the third year in a row.
Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Laurie Koehler declined to comment on why GW dropped in rankings, whether she believes GW will drop next year, how ratings impact recruitment or what should be added to the rankings methodology to more accurately represent GW.
In a statement identical to one given to The Hatchet last year, when GW dropped by two spots, University spokeswoman Candace Smith said in an email that rankings are just one of many ways students can decide where to apply and attend.
“Our focus will continue to be on achieving academic excellence, providing an outstanding University experience to our students and highlighting the important contributions of our exceptional students, faculty, staff and alumni to our city, nation and world,” she said.
University President Steven Knapp called the rankings a “one-size-fits-all methodology” in a panel discussion at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. last week. He said officials should not make decisions based on the rankings, which he said are used mainly to drive attention to the magazine.
Knapp has made retention his main focus this year. He said improving GW’s retention rate, which he called a weak spot, will require maintaining a healthy campus environment. GW’s retention rate is four percentage points lower than the 97 percent average rate for top 10 schools, according to the rankings.
Experts also said the rankings involve many factors, making it hard to pinpoint the successes or failures of a school.
Nick Hillman, an assistant education professor at the University of Wisconsin‒Madison, said “rankings fuel the reputational arms race we see in higher education.”
Although officials may say rankings are just one aspect to a school’s reputation, they also compete to move up in the rankings as another way to attract students, he said. Still, he said most students aren’t swayed by the rankings and will pick the school they can afford.
“Students don’t often make decisions on those rankings. Rankings are for wealthier kids who can afford to shop around,” he said.
Duke University Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag said in an email that rankings largely magnify “meaningless differences among colleges.” Duke, one of GW’s peers, is ranked No. 8 on the list.
“I find them reductive and misleading. I think it’s a bad idea to reduce something as complex and multifaceted as a university to a single, seemingly objective number. Rankings tend to imply an objectivity of assessment that isn’t warranted,” he said.
Daniel Klasik, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said that there are too many measurements used by U.S. News & World Report to pinpoint exactly why GW has been gradually falling in the rankings for the last several years.
Klasik, who studies how students decide where to attend college, said staying in the top 25 schools matters the most for recruitment, and being bumped out of that top tier can significantly change the number of applications the school receives.
Still, being one of the top 50 institutions is a “meaningful” threshold for a colleges to cross, he said. But Klasik noted that rankings are just “one measure of school quality.”
“No one really knows what they mean,” he said.