Whitman receives high national rankings

Sam Chapman

Illustration: Loos-Diallo

For a high school student searching for the perfect college, school rankings in the media quickly become familiar. Publications such as U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review  release annual evaluations comparing liberal arts colleges, private colleges, and all colleges and universities to the others in their fields on a number of diverse criteria.

The rankings are designed to help prospective students identify schools that fit their criteria. This year, Whitman was ranked 42 out of 252 liberal arts schools by U.S. News and World Report.   Additionally, Whitman was named one of the Best 376 Colleges by The Princeton Review;  Whitman was also declared to have the nation’s second best health facilities, 14th best class discussions, 18th highest race and class interaction, and 19th best professors.

Among other rankings, Whitman also  received a five-star rating from Campus Pride, a nonprofit supporting LGBT-friendly colleges, and was selected as one of ten “hidden gems” by Unigo.com.

As quoted on the Whitman College website, President George Bridges expressed pride in the recognition brought on by good rankings.

“The rankings reflect Whitman’s many academic and co-curricular strengths and, specifically, the unique and effective ways in which our faculty and staff deliver an exceptional education in the liberal arts and sciences,” Bridges said.

Dean of Admissions Tony Cabasco is also proud of the rankings, but cautions readers not to take them too seriously.

“Some of the rankings, if you were to measure them, are not all scientific studies. They’re based on a different set of criteria; each organization will rank based on what they feel will make a difference,” Cabasco said. “The good news is that Whitman has done relatively well in several different kinds of rankings; in a number of criteria we’re consistently regarded well.”

Director of Communications Ruth Wardwell takes the rankings with a grain of salt for another reason.

“My first thought is always, ‘I hope it’s accurate,'” Wardwell said. “I know there have been schools where figures have been transposed by human error. You always have to hope that the data reported by the rankings is accurate and that it portrays an accurate reflection of Whitman.”

Wardwell, a part of whose job is to write up the rankings for the Whitman website when they are released, described the benefits that a good rating can have for a college.

“Greater awareness of Whitman widens the audience,” she said. “The more people that know about Whitman and what it is, the greater our chances of finding new Whitties.”

Cabasco says that being ranked well validates Whitman’s internal procedures. He further believes that, while college guides and magazines will not, by themselves, motivate a student to attend a school, they can often be a push for a prospective student who is already interested.

“[Prospective students] might have heard of Whitman already and then saw that we scored well in Princeton Review rankings. It’s not a primary driver,” Cabasco said. “It’s something that students will notice, but it’s a much more complicated decision than that to determine what’s a good fit for you.”

While rankings can often be a helpful tool and a motivating source of praise, they have their darker sides as well. A story,  reported this year on insidehighered.com, highlighted the problems with a system in which college presidents were asked to rank institutions in the U.S. News survey.

“Presidents may be tempted to rely on out-of-date reputations, may speed through the rankings with little thought or may even give low rankings to colleges that are competitors.”

Cabasco, however, says that Whitman has never considered such policies, and asserts that the college would not need to.

“Our primary mission is to deliver the best liberal arts education that we can: to hire the best faculty, to provide the best facilities, to have the best programs,” he said. “I think if we focus on those things, these things will take care of themselves. [Rankings] are external recognition of what we value internally.”

Cabasco went on to add that he thinks playing politics with rankings is a futile effort.

“My sense is that some of those efforts [to move up in rankings] may not change the substance of the institution.”

For the full list of honors received by Whitman in magazine and online rankings this year, go to www.whitman.edu/content/news/rankingsfall2011.