College rankings pose difficult questions about status of LC education

By JOSH FREEMAN

U.S. NEWS & WORLD Report has released its 2016 National Liberal Arts College Rankings, and Lewis & Clark has made a slight jump, from 79 to 72. Despite this being the most popular college ranking (and objective measure of prestige and academic quality) available to potential students, you won’t see it advertised on LC’s website. LC’s website will, however, tell you that, according to the unscientific research of a fitness and diet website you have never heard about (Greatist.com?), LC is among the 25 healthiest colleges in the nation. An enticing endorsement to invest tens of thousands of dollars in an education if I’ve ever read one.

LC administrators may loathe transparency, and prefer that 18-yearolds look at the pretty pictures on their website when taking out massive, lifecrushing loans instead of accessing pertinent information about potential schools, but for everyone else USNWR rankings are an important metric for understanding how the world sees LC, its students and the value of an LC degree. LC willingly gives USNWR all of its admissions data every year, so it must see some value in the process (Public Communications also touts LC’s presence in unranked USNWR categories such as “Best Study Abroad Programs.”)

So why does LC languish in the lower tier of schools? Let’s start with Admissions. In 2005, LC admitted 59% of its applicants, and a healthy 20% enrolled. These two numbers are among the most important in assessing college quality: the acceptance rate tells us how choosy LC could afford to be when admitting students without compromising the equally important second number. This second number, called the yield rate, tells us how many admitted students chose to enroll. For context, Reed College’s yield rate that year was 31%, and Willamette University’s was 21%.

With the rise in popularity of The Common Application and the simplified process for applying to multiple schools in a single admissions cycle, colleges began to compete for the best applicants. Admissions had to increase the overall number of students admitted to offset the number of admitted students who got into (and enrolled in) a better college. From 2005 to 2011, the number of students admitted each year rose by nearly 1500 (from 2495 to 3928). The increase in applications facilitated by the Common App did not rise commensurately, so that the acceptance rate rose to a laughable 67% (where it sits today). This has led to overcrowding disasters: both 2011 and 2015 have seen over 600 first-years enroll, significantly more than LC’s average first-year enrollment in previous years.

By 2013, LC had a yield rate of less than 12%, which placed it at an abysmal 217 out of all the 223 liberal arts colleges USNWR ranks. This tells us that LC, a beautiful college in the nation’s coolest city, was almost the least desirable major liberal arts college in the country among its first-year applicants that year. This year’s class of first-years has a yield rate around 13%. How is LC becoming less selective in a time when more people than ever are going to college? Why don’t academically talented students want to go to LC? We have to understand why those applicants consider LC their very last resort.

What word comes to mind when you think about Lewis & Clark College? Beautiful? International? Green? Now think of Pomona College; now Vassar College; finish with Reed College. What did you think of then? Prestigious? Storied? Rigorous? Do you see the issue? LC has worked overtime at branding itself as an environmentally friendly college with a pretty campus, but what does that tell us about the school, its academics or its students? There is a brand but no identity. LC’s Twitter page, the first point of contact for many potential students, gives this description: “Nationally known for its beautiful campus, Lewis & Clark prepares students for lives of local and global engagement.” Notice the omission of words usually associated with a college, like academic, rigorous, or selective — a beautiful campus is apparently the most salient part of an education at LC. In an effort to attract as many applicants as possible, the college has transformed itself into the most inoffensive, vanilla institution imaginable.

One could compare LC to a high school in a decent neighborhood — some people rich, some poor, a sizeable number of athletes, a few smart people who will move on to greater opportunities, but mostly it’s just average middle-class students thrown together, working to finish a degree because that’s what is expected of them. After-college prospects don’t look so great either: LC has one of the lowest alumni donation rates of any private college — either our alumni hate us, or none of them have made any money (for those who say that “a liberal arts education isn’t about money,” when you’re a senior staring down significant student loan debt, you pray you eventually find some way to pay down that debt).

Earlier this year, the Department of Education released the College Scorecard, a database that gives insight into median salaries 10 years postgraduation, in addition to average net price, federal student loan default rate and other information. Unfortunately, this database does not offer good news either — LC grads can expect a salary of $43,400 after graduation (of course, this data is more complicated than it appears, but it provides a general idea). For comparison, grads of the prestigious Williams College make about $58,000 10 years after graduation. LC’s peer institutions Willamette University and University of Puget Sound clock in at over $49,000 and $51,000 respectively. Why are LC grad’s salaries so low? You often hear the explanation that many grads go into low-paying nonprofit work — where is the proof? Both Willamette and Puget Sound place more of their grads into the Peace Corps than LC. What are LC grads doing?

SAT and ACT scores have remained stagnant over the past decade; whenever college officials try to say that the incoming student body is stronger than ever, they are lying. Good students now have the option to apply to any college, and LC is a safety school at best (one pretty low on most people’s lists, apparently). Students entering the college today are electing to not submit test scores at rates higher than ever before. This does not bode well for LC’s legacy. You cannot Portfolio Path your way into elite law or medical schools. When will LC’s alumni list be filled with important and successful scientists, academics and artists? That is the alumni network we need. Bullshit “greenest college” rankings from Princeton Review won’t help you get a job when you graduate — and that’s important, because most LC grads enter the workforce, not graduate education. You pay more money than almost any other students in the nation, so demand the best, both during school and after you graduate. Demand that LC figure out ways to guide more students into strong graduate programs. Demand better career services. And most importantly, fight back against the efforts to make the college just a pretty face. It’ll boost LC’s rankings (and your careers) in the long run.

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