As noted in Lance Kyle’s opinion piece, published on Sept. 29, college rankings do matter. As suggested by Mr. Kyle, people do follow these annual lists, particularly the undergraduate guide published each fall by U.S. News & World Report. While we know that any ranking on its own does not accurately reflect the exceptional academic experience offered at the College of William and Mary, they are a source of pride for many on and off campus. We want to perform well.
But when commenting on rankings, it is essential to understand the methodologies and the additional context that goes with them. To that end, Mr. Kyle’s piece contained several errors that require correction and clarification.
For starters, it is incorrect to suggest that the U.S. News rankings have been consistently calculated over time; comparing one year to another is not an apples-to-apples evaluation. There have been several changes to the methodology, typically occurring every five years. The 2019 list saw major changes that resulted in volatility unseen in recent years.
The 2019 methodology devalued several areas including graduation rate, retention rate and high school counselor assessment – all strengths of William and Mary – while increasing emphasis on known areas for improvement by W&M, most notably enrollment of Pell Grant recipients. (Note: W&M features among the highest Pell Grant recipient graduation rates in the country.)
On the 2019 list, half of the universities ranked from 30th to 53rd (13 of 26 universities, including ties) moved five or more places – up or down – from the 2018 list. Within that range, the largest jumps included a rise of nine spots and a drop of seven spots. For comparison, the prior year (2017 to 2018), only one university saw a move of that magnitude. An expanded view of the top 150 universities shows even greater variance.
It’s important to understand that the change in methodology caused the volatility in the 2019 rankings, not any change in William and Mary’s fundamental performance metrics such as graduation rate, which actually increased to 92 percent this year. For the 1996-2018 rankings, W&M ranked between 29th and 34th, a range of five spots. Only five institutions had a smaller range during that span: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.
Second, William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg do not share the same trustees as the opinion piece claimed. Over the past decade, only one board member simultaneously served both organizations, from 2008 to 2012.
Finally, not all top-25 U.S. News universities have endowments in excess of $3.5 billion as claimed in the opinion piece. According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ 2017 NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowment, nearly a fifth of U.S. News top-25 universities have endowments below that threshold. For reference, only three of the 26 universities ranked from 26th to 50th have endowments above that threshold.
Thanks to the generosity of its donors and sound investment, W&M’s endowment has grown 89 percent in the last 10 years – a total gain of $441 million. W&M is the smallest public university to undertake a $1 billion campaign, a goal the university’s For the Bold campaign is on track to achieve.
In addition, William and Mary consistently leads all nationally ranked public universities in undergraduate alumni participation in annual giving, ranking 17th overall. That’s up from 18th a year ago, 35th in 2011, the first year of the campaign, and 43rd in 2009. In 2011-2012, the university had a 23.6 percent participation rate. Today it’s 28.7 percent. By comparison, among all the schools that reported alumni giving data to U.S. News, the average was 11.6 percent in 2017.
William and Mary welcomes and encourages active engagement from alumni, including Mr. Kyle. Such engagement is particularly helpful when based on facts.
Whitson is Chief Communications Officer at the College of William and Mary.