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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Making sense of Tufts’ decline in national rankings

Prospective and current students contemplate what the drop in rankings means for the Tufts community.

news-photo
The front of Dowling Hall is pictured on Oct. 5, 2021.

Anushka Dharia and her father Neel Dharia from Chandler, Ariz., sat at a sunny table outside of Dowling Hall on Oct. 3, as they pored over Tufts admissions brochures, waiting to convene for their campus tour. Anushka, a high school senior in the beginning of her college application process, said she had heard of the reports that Tufts recently declined in two major national college ranking lists a couple weeks prior, but did not seem worried.

“Honestly, I thought it was fine because [the rankings of] these schools are just changing all the time,” Anushka said.

For the Tufts community, the 2023 fall semester began with news of the university’s drop in the rankings. On the US News and World Report list, Tufts fell from 32nd to 40th place (of 439), and on the Wall Street Journal’s 2024 Best Colleges list, Tufts landed at 287th place out of 400.

US News and Reports published a breakdown of considerations that factor into creating their rankings. The list includes 19 categories, each of which is weighted differently. Graduation rate, peer assessment and graduation rate performance are the three most heavily weighted categories at 16%, 20% and 10% respectively. Other factors include standardized tests (5%), faculty salaries (6%) and borrower debt (5%). The information fed into the 19 categories is quantitative, which allows the rankings to be created via the use of an algorithm.

In an email to the Daily, Dean of Admissions JT Duck explained the evolution of the rankings system.  

In recent years, rankings have begun moving away from ‘inputs’ (attributes of the admitted class, for example) and toward ‘outputs’ – how well institutions educate and graduate their students, including the ability to create social mobility for students from lower-income backgrounds,” he wrote.  

Yet, the perception of Tufts appears unchanged both for prospective and current students interviewed by the Daily, despite the drop in rankings.

“Students do ask about the student experience and specific academic opportunities that are important to them; but they rarely ask about rankings,” Duck wrote.

During her application process last year, SMFA dual-degree freshman Naomi Sarando, whose pronouns of reference are she and they, searched for programs that would allow them to pursue “art and another subject” that she’d be interested in. Rather than deliberate over rankings, Sarando said that the main thing they care about is whether Tufts is serving its students to the best of its ability.

“At least to me, what matters the most … [are] good teachers and teachers that clearly care about the students. … And also that there [are] good accommodations for students with different backgrounds and different needs,” Sarando said.

Rather than turn to rankings, prospective student Anushka has specifically looked into universities that offer opportunities for undergraduate research.

“I do liver research, I volunteer at hospitals, I do stuff like that, so … Tufts popped up as No. 1 on my list,” Anushka said.

While prospective and current students may feel less concerned about rankings, parents like Neel do feel that rankings hold weight.

“The perception of a parent is very different than the perception of a student,” he said. “Since I’m going to be paying for the college. … You want to go through such an expensive school with the idea of getting a good job in the end. I think that’s the reason the rankings do matter in a parent’s mind.”

Due to the quantitative nature of rankings, the most information these lists can offer is a quick comparison of universities’ output data. But other tangible characteristics of schools are omitted in the calculations. While salaries, test scores and graduation rates are considered, these lists are not able to tell a prospective student about factors like a school’s club offerings, the academic culture or even the student climate.

Being from Arizona where it’s 120 degrees every single day, to coming here where you actually have all four seasons is a big difference,” Anushka said, as she motioned to the surrounding campus. And the environment that Tufts provides [is important] — the student diversity, the focus on students, the tight-knit communities, you know, everything like that.”

These “hard-to-measure cultural elements” of Tufts, as Duck describes, draw students to research Tufts, sign up for tours and, in the end, apply.

In recent years, university acceptance rates for elite universities have steadily declined, with Tufts itself accepting just 9.5% of applicants for the class of 2027, compared to 11% for the class of 2025. The process of applying to college is notably more competitive than it has been historically, and rankings have contributed to this culture.

There has been a proliferation of rankings in recent years, which I think dilutes the influence of any one rankings outlet,”  Duck wrote.

Duck mentioned his hopes for the future of the application process.

I think new ways of learning about our applicants that extend beyond a traditional essay question or alumni interview, new ways of understanding the contributions to our community that an applicant can make, and new ways of assessing the academic preparedness of our applicants will happen over time,” Duck wrote.

For Anushka, her excitement about being at Tufts for a tour was palpable.

“It feels more real, it feels personal,” she said. “You can see the students walking to classes, you can see them … interacting with each other … here, [at Tufts], you can actually see what the student life is.”

Despite his concern about rankings, Neel also felt positive about the school.

“Tufts itself has a great net. And I think that makes a big difference,” he said.

Neel ultimately emphasized his support for his daughter’s choices.

“She’s doing it all by herself with some help from the school counselors,” he said. “I’m just there to support her, [in] whatever way she wants the support.”