Because of a reporting error about the debt of its students, Whitman College has been “unranked” by U.S. News and World Report, which publishes the best-known and perhaps most influential college rankings in the country.
Studies show college rankings can have a significant effect on freshman enrollment, despite oft-repeated concerns about the usefulness and accuracy of those metrics.
So, when the 2022 U.S. News rankings were released in September, showing Whitman College jumped from the 47th spot to tie for 38th, the school published an article later that day to capitalize on the good news. It was the best score for the college in eight years, which “reveal Whitman as the top liberal arts college in the region,” according to the now-deleted article.
“While we don’t rely on outside rankings to tell our story, it’s always gratifying when they affirm what we already know: that this is a very special place to live and learn,” then-President Kathleen Murray said at the time. “We know many families look at these rankings when they are making college decisions and are very proud to see Whitman again acknowledged as one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country.”
But sometime after July 16, that article was quietly removed from the rankings page on the college’s website, as was any other mention of U.S. News, after the institution learned that it would be losing its 2022 ranking entirely. Last week, Alzada Tipton, provost and dean of the faculty, wrote an email to inform faculty and staff of the decision.
Whitman College provides hundreds of data points to U.S. News to help inform the rankings, Tipton wrote, but a Whitman staff member noticed a discrepancy in one of the statistics that was provided for the 2022 report.
“Whitman alerted the publication to the error in order to make a correction,” Tipton wrote. “The mistake was in a statistic regarding the debt of Whitman graduates and accounted for 5% of Whitman’s ranking score.”
The miscalculation was identified and reported earlier this summer, wrote Interim Associate Director of Media and Public Relations Gillian Frew in an email to the Union-Bulletin. Whitman College flagged the mistake while submitting the new data for 2023, but U.S. News announces all the schools unranked due to data errors at one time, Frew wrote.
Whitman College declined to disclose information about the staff member who initially detected the error.
The miscalculation appears to be a one-off, and information published directly by the college about student debt is accurate, Tipton reassured staff and faculty in her Tuesday email.
Though becoming unranked may have an effect on incoming freshmen for the 2022-2023 school year, the 2023 rankings will be published in September, meaning the reporting error will only cost Whitman College a couple of months on the U.S. News leaderboard.
“While it is unfortunate that Whitman is labeled as unranked in the short term, transparency in reporting is a priority,” Tipton wrote. “We are glad the error was caught, and we look forward to September when the college will reappear in the rankings.”
It is unclear how Whitman College would have ranked if the correct data had been submitted to U.S. News. The media company did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.