September 10, 2018
Dear Members of the Trinity Community,
It’s rankings season. Almost everyone in higher education has a distaste for the oversimplification of our diverse institutions to an ordinal ranking—and the flawed methodology that underlies every such ranking—but we understand the reality. Many prospective students and families rely to some degree on rankings to help them sort through and narrow the thousands of options out there to a manageable list of colleges to consider.
We also know that rankings have become something of a sore point for some in our community given Trinity’s drop in the U.S. News ranking from 2006 to 2014. For some, this narrative has taken on a mythical quality, too—that Trinity was once in the top 10 among national liberal arts colleges. The fact is, in the U.S. News ranking, Trinity’s highest position was at number 20, back in 1990 (when just 25 such institutions were even ranked, compared with 172 today). We haven’t been in the top 25 since 2006.
The proud competitor in me—and in many of you, I imagine—hates to see Trinity slip in any ranking. And this year, we saw a slip in three. This hurts because I know how great the institution is and what an extraordinary education we provide to our students. But let me say a little about the methodology of these three rankings to help you understand how, in the case of U.S. News, our ranking fell two points from last year but essentially has stabilized after falling dramatically for a decade, while in another, the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (WSJ/THE) ranking, we dropped 18 spots, and in a third, by Money magazine, our position fell an astonishing 406 spots. Those three wildly different data points alone should raise questions about the methodology of college rankings. Allow me to shed just a little more light.
In the U.S. News ranking, our slight drop resulted primarily from lower retention and graduation rates from students who entered the college in 2011. That class, we now know, was an outlier, with the lowest six-year graduation rate of any class in the college’s recent history. Data from that class was included in the U.S. News algorithm for the first time this year, and because these are lagging indicators that use averages of four years’ retention and graduation rates, those same figures will be included in the U.S. News calculations for three more years. Meanwhile, new data takes a while to be included in those categories—the stats for students who applied in the fall of 2016 are only just this fall included in their calculations.
As for Money’s rankings, we inquired and learned that Trinity’s swing was due primarily to a single penalty assigned to us as one of 40 or so schools that reported laying off any employees in the previous year. If the ranking researchers at Money found reports of layoffs, a penalty was assigned, and that was enough to drop us and the others hundreds of spots in that ranking.
In the WSJ/THE ranking, which is in its third year, Trinity’s scores remained fairly consistent with last year’s in all but one category, the one called “engagement.” The data for that category came from a 12-question student survey, whose respondents were recruited through social media. The WSJ/THE ranking required just 50 student responses.
So, for those looking to rankings as a litmus test for any of Trinity’s recent policy changes or as a full reflection of how the college is doing, you should look elsewhere.
Where should you look? Here are a few reminders, for starters. Since 2014:
- We have continually admitted academically stronger and more diverse classes each year (this year alone we saw an increase of 21 percent of incoming students at the top of our academic rating scale).
- We’ve seen exceptional outcomes for our students (95 percent of the Classes of 2016 and 2017 are employed, in graduate school, or serving in a volunteer capacity or in the military).
- We have consistently recruited first-choice faculty and staff.
- Our facilities have improved significantly (Gruss Music Center, new athletic fields, the Crescent Center for Arts and Neuroscience, and more).
- Our finances are stronger and more stable (with a leaner, more strategic budget and a record-high endowment of $615 million).
Importantly, as you know, we have embarked upon a new strategic vision for the college, one we developed together as a community over 18 months. We are tracking carefully our progress toward the goals articulated in Summit and sharing that progress with you. Our success will be measured in indicators such as a higher yield of top students; improved retention, graduation, and job/graduate school placement rates; increased alumni and parent engagement; and improved satisfaction with and participation in the life and governance of the college by students, faculty, and staff. We focus on those measures and others that we value—those that are consistent with Trinity’s mission. This year, for instance, we are particularly focused on improving the experiences of our current students and seeing that retention and graduation rates continue to climb.
In 2014, when I had just arrived as president and Trinity’s ranking in U.S. News fell significantly, I pledged then to focus on the things that are central to our mission that would end that decline. I can tell you with confidence that the work we have done since then to focus on recruitment and retention of top students and to address class sizes, faculty salaries, and much more has stopped that precipitous decline. Our current students are benefiting greatly from that work, and we will see its effects in future years’ rankings.
As members of the Trinity College community, you have much to be proud of. Trinity is an exceptional liberal arts college that is fortunate—given its location in a diverse, vibrant capital city—to be able to offer a truly distinctive and relevant education. We are striving every day to make that education the very best it can be and to demonstrate its value to the world. We’re grateful for your support as we do so.
President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience