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2012 Fall Issue 1 (September 21, 2012)

Carleton: most popular “peer institution”?

September 21, 2012
By Kaitlyn Gerber

Every year, the Deans and Presidents of approximately 1,600 colleges and universities submit significant amounts of data to the U.S. Department of Education, including “comparison groups” of schools with similar financial, enrollment, admissions, graduation, and other data—essentially, schools that universities view as their peer institutions.

Due to the subjective nature of the data, one would assume that schools would want to associate themselves with more well-known and highly-ranked schools.

This year, that “popular group” consisted not only of the Ivies and similar universities, but also of highly-selective liberal arts colleges, with Carleton leading the way. “When colleges look to compare themselves with others, they’re not much different from high school students chasing popularity,” wrote Andrea Fuller in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Everyone wants to be friends with” the popular schools, but the popular schools themselves are “really picky about who [they] hang out with.”

As The Chronicle noted, Carleton was chosen sixty-one times as a “peer institution” by other institutions of higher learning, more times than any other school.

Of the sixteen colleges that Carleton selected as its peer institutions, thirteen colleges, including Bowdoin, Pomona, Middlebury, Swarthmore, and Williams Colleges, also chose Carleton as their peers; the remaining three institutions (Amherst, Bryn Mawr, and Smith Colleges) did not participate and submitted no data for the comparison groups.

In other words, every participating college that Carleton named as a peer also named Carleton, confirming that the country’s most selective liberal arts colleges truly view Carleton as having a caliber equal to their own.

In addition to those thirteen, forty-eight other institutions also selected Carleton as a peer, including Carleton’s Northfield neighbor St. Olaf. Oberlin and Davidson, listed fifty-six times each, tied for second in the survey; other top liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst, Williams, and Grinnell were selected between thirty and forty times.
The Chronicle also noted that the typical college in the survey selected approximately sixteen institutions of higher learning, generally with slightly lower acceptance rates and higher budgets and enrollment statistics.

In other words, many of the schools that selected Carleton saw it as an “aspirant peer,” a school that they wished to emulate. Ultimately, the Chronicle concluded that their data set showed two things: whom the elite schools see as their peers, and whom many less-selective schools wish to emulate or associate with. As the most-selected school, Carleton fared well in both of these categories.

“It feels good to be a part of an institution so highly esteemed by its peers,” said Anna Moltchanova, Associate Professor of Philosophy and chair of Carleton’s Philosophy Department. “[It] confirms what I already know about Carleton—we are a great school.”

She also added, somewhat wryly, how “refreshing” it is to hear about peer comparisons “in a context [separate] from a discussion of how high our tuition is or where our employees’ salaries are in comparison to our peers—the two situations in which [she has] experienced the notion of ‘peer institutions’ invoked most in the past couple of years.”

Some students and professors initially expressed skepticism about the importance of these new rankings, with more than one wondering whether or not Carleton was simply chosen by schools who felt like they were “settling” for a school like Carleton. As one professor wondered, “maybe they think we are their peer because they still have to work on being like Amherst.”

Still, the statistics from the Chronicle indicate that the data places Carleton directly within the ranks of other esteemed peers such as Williams College, Middlebury College, Stanford University, and Cornell University, so it is more likely that Carleton was seen as an “aspirant peer.”

The Chronicle agrees: “in selecting peers,” asserted the article, “colleges look upward.” Carleton’s place on that list is something that the College should be proud of.

 For more information, see The Chronicle of Higher Education at http://chronicle.com/article/In-Selecting-Peers-for/134228/.

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