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A Q&A With Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dale Kuiper on U.S. News & World Report and College Rankings
August 17, 2007

Q - Why did Calvin's U.S. News & World Report ranking change so dramatically this year?

A - Last year Calvin was ranked first by U.S. News & World Report in the category of “Midwest Comprehensive Bachelor's Colleges.” There were about 110 colleges and universities in that category last year. This year Calvin was moved to a completely different category, a national category called “Liberal Arts Colleges.” That is the key factor in change of rankings this year.

None of the key areas which U.S. News & World Report measures -- things like graduation rate, retention rate, alumni giving, percentage of class taught by fulltime faculty, etc. -- have changed at Calvin from last year to this year. Calvin is the same school it was a year ago, but simply in a different category this year.

Q - Why did Calvin shift categories?

A - U.S. News & World Report uses the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education when they sort schools for the rankings. Because Calvin was recently moved by Carnegie into the Baccalaureate Colleges -- Arts and Sciences, a national category U.S. News & World Report calls liberal arts colleges, Calvin also was moved in terms of how U.S. News & World Report categorizes us.

Q - Okay, so what's the difference in the two categories and why did Calvin move?

A - Our old category included just schools in the Midwest, about 110 in all, while our new category is national and includes close to 270 colleges and universities from around the country. Also our new national category is more of a classic liberal arts category and consequently we are competing with a variety of prestigious national colleges.

Calvin was reclassified by Carnegie because slightly more than 50 percent of our students are graduating with majors in arts and sciences fields -- such as biology, English, math and philosophy -- and slightly less than 50 percent in professional degree fields -- such as business, education, engineering and nursing. When Carnegie classified institutions in 2000 -- the basis for previous U.S. News rankings -- it was the reverse: slightly more than 50 percent of our graduates were majoring in professional degree fields.

Q - So why did the change lead to a drop in the rankings.

A - One of the biggest factors in the rankings drop probably was our peer reputation score. In our old Midwest category we scored the best of any school in peer assessment, a rating that measures what presidents, provosts and deans of admissions at Calvin's competitors think of the school's academic programs. That's a big factor in where schools are ranked. It accounts for 25 percent of a school's overall ranking. Switching categories meant jumping into a group where fewer of our new peers know us the way our old peers did. That hurt our ranking. One example of this is where we were ranked this year and where St. Mary's, Ind., was ranked. Last year we were tied with St. Mary's for number-one in the Midwest. This year we both moved but we ended up at 116th and they finished 91st. Why? As far as we can tell it's because their peer assessment score dropped slightly less than ours did. We went from 4.1 last year to 2.9 this year; they dropped from 3.6 to 2.6. The fact that we were slightly less ahead of them this year meant a 25-place difference between them and us in our new category!

Q- Anything else?

A - Our new category features a lot of schools with really significant financial resources. At $80 million our endowment is tiny compared to some of our new national competitors. With our typical enrollment of 4,200 students our endowment works out to about $20,000 per student. We know we need to increase our endowment and our financial resources to sustain and maintain Calvin for the next century. However, the schools in our new category have a huge head start on us in that area. For example, an MIAA peer such as Albion has an endowment nearing $150 million with an average of $70,000 per student. The top schools in our new category have endowments over a billion dollars! U.S. News & World Report puts a fair amount of weight on financial resources so we get hurt in that area in our new category.

Q - What other factors in the U.S. News & World Report rankings came into play this year for Calvin?

A - Categories in U.S. News & World Report such as Calvin’s graduation rate, retention rate, percentage of classes taught by fulltime faculty and student-faculty ratio did not change for the worse between last year and this year. In fact in several of those areas Calvin improved.

Q - So Calvin isn't a different school than it was a year ago?

A - No. Last year we scored high in our category in percentage of faculty who are full-time (91 percent), freshman retention rate (87 percent), graduation rate (74 percent) and alumni giving rate (33 percent). This year those numbers were either all the same or slightly better! We continue to strive for excellence in all that we do; we continue to improve the quality of a Calvin education; and we continue to rest on the solid Reformed Christian foundation that has undergirded our work here since 1876.

Q - Still, to go from first to 116th is a big drop.

A - On the surface, yes it is. But people shouldn't look at it that way. For example, in our new category, the rate at which colleges and universities accept high school seniors, the percentage of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class and the SAT and ACT scores of incoming students are worth 15 percent of a school's rank. The average acceptance rate of the top 25 in our new category is 31 percent compared to our 98 percent. We practice very open admissions here at Calvin, while most of our new competitors do not; they reject about seven in 10 applicants. That didn't hurt us as much in our old category; it does in our new category. Also the average retention rate -- how many first-year students return as sophomores -- is 95 percent for the top 25 in our new category compared to our 87 percent. The average graduation rate of the top 25 is 89 percent compared to our 74 percent. Frankly our more open admissions policy probably hurts our retention rate and graduation rate numbers a little, but we're committed to that approach and so we'll take the hit there when it comes to U.S. News & World Report rankings. Hopefully when people understand that they'll also understand a little better how complicated the ratings game can be.

Q - How do you think students and their parents should approach college rankings guides?

A - We've always handled rankings, including the U.S. News & World Report rankings, with much care and a slight degree of skepticism. In our news release last year -- when we were ranked first in our old category -- I said: "Finding a college is quite a bit different than buying a car or a fridge. The data available in guides like U.S. News & World Report can be helpful to high school students, parents, guidance counselors and others. And it provides a convenient collection of criteria like graduation rates, first-year retention rates, class sizes and student-faculty ratios. But those are only a few of the many ways that should be used to measure whether a student will fit well with a particular college." That advice holds true a year later as well. Visit campuses, talk to current students, check out college and university Web sites, e-mail professors, sit in on a class, stay overnight in a residence hall. There are many ways to get to know a college or university. The bottom line for Calvin is we are a Christian college that provides a first-rate academic experience, one we believe is equal to any college in the country. Our graduates are doing amazing work of renewal in God's world. They are making a difference. That's an affirmation of our educational enterprise that goes far beyond a ranking in a college guide.

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