Exceptional undergraduate teaching, internships and career mentoring, small classes and a commitment to access and affordability highlight William & Mary’s strategy to offer the most personal educational experience of any public university.

President Katherine A. Rowe affirmed William & Mary’s values-based priorities when opening the 2023-2024 academic year.

“For centuries, W&M has prized the strength of our academic community, where close mentoring of students by world-class faculty inspires lifelong learning,” Rowe said. “That intentional approach to human connection leads to lives of meaning and distinction by alumni who, in turn, remain deeply engaged with alma mater. No other public university can claim that personal scale and focus, an increasingly rare distinction across all of higher education. For this, W&M is recognized as the quintessential ‘Public Ivy.’”

The affirmation comes during a year when the national rankings landscape has undergone chaotic changes, including new rankings for some publications and completely overhauled methodology for others. The result is unprecedented movement up and down among the nation’s leading universities, creating understandable uncertainty as people attempt to navigate the noise and understand what rankings convey about an institution.

At William & Mary, there is no confusion about the university’s values-based strategy.

“William & Mary remains focused on what matters to us: providing students with a distinctive, personal educational experience aligned with our values,” said Vice President for Strategy & Innovation Jeremy P. Martin. “The data show that students now consider a range of sources for information when choosing a university. Meanwhile, U.S. News continues to cut key measures W&M has always cared about: small class size, strong alumni engagement and low student-debt ratio.”

Strategic priorities

While much of the rankings world has been recalibrated, some lists and categories continue to highlight strategic priorities within the university:

  • A+. W&M received an A+ grade in the 2024 report card by Niche Best Colleges in America, based on categories such as academics, diversity, professors and value. W&M ranked 23rd in Niche’s Best Colleges for Education list.
  • #6 for teaching. The university improved to sixth in the nation for excellence in undergraduate teaching, according to U.S. News & World Report.
  • In a series of new rankings in spring 2023, The Wall Street Journal showcased W&M’s excellence in career preparation by reporting that alumni who pursue careers in finance, management consulting, technology and law are among the highest earners in the industry. Careers is a core initiative of W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan, along with democracy, data and water.
  • #1 for Internships. Earlier this year, Princeton Review again highlighted William & Mary in its Best Value Colleges rankings, naming the university the best public institution in the nation for internships for the third consecutive year. 
  • #5 for impact in the world. Princeton Review also featured the university’s commitment to public service and affordability. W&M ranked fifth among public institutions for students looking to make an impact on the world. Additionally, W&M ranked 13th among the best value public colleges, 12th for best value public colleges for students who don’t qualify for financial aid and 17th for best public institutions for financial aid.
  • Last month, the university was lauded by Princeton Review for its superlative offerings in categories including college newspaper (fifth), library (sixth), race/class interaction (12th), science lab facilities (16th), most active student government (18th), most politically active students (19th), students love these colleges (19th) and LGBTQ-friendly colleges (21st).

A new ranking 

William & Mary offers the lowest student-to-faculty ratio (13-to-one) among leading national public universities. W&M historically has had the highest alumni giving rate of any national public university. Both class size and alumni giving have been eliminated by U.S. News. 

Over the last decade, William & Mary has reduced the number and percentage of students graduating with loans. Over that same period, the average dollar amount of loans has dropped, too. Student-debt ratio also was eliminated by U.S. News.

As a result of methodological changes, the new ranking by U.S. News lists William & Mary as 53rd among national universities and 23rd among public universities. Many colleges saw major shifts in this year’s ranking. More than a third (33.7%) of institutions saw their rank decline by up to 20 spots from 2023 to 2024​, and 6.1% saw their rank decline by 50 or more spots. And the magazine’s 2024 top-50 national universities generally share one of two attributes: the private institutions have a median endowment of $9.4 billion and the public institutions have a median enrollment of 45,600 students.

The overhaul by U.S. News comes as surveys show the publication no longer has the same hold on families of prospective students. According to a recent report by Art & Science Group, a higher education consulting firm, newer lists by companies other than U.S. News now make up 78% of student engagement with rankings now. The Niche guide is a close second now overall as a rankings source for prospective students. At William & Mary, the university today gets four times the number of website views from the Niche online guide than it does from U.S. News.

Just 3% of high school seniors surveyed could identify the U.S. News ranking for their first-choice school, according to the report.

“It’s so hard to navigate the rankings noise. Students today care less about a number on a list and more about the community they are joining,” said W&M Student Assembly President Sydney Thayer ‘24. “Are there outstanding teachers? Will I be encouraged to explore new academic passions? Will I actually like these people? I chose William & Mary because I felt a strong sense of community from the moment I first stepped onto campus. This is a place where I can pursue my passions and am encouraged by everyone around me to learn, grow and become the best version of myself.” 

Towards a fuller picture

The long list of rankings can make it difficult for families to navigate various reports.

A new ranking from The Wall Street Journal illustrates the dissonance between various rankings from year to year, even if issued by the same organization. 

While earlier this spring William & Mary was lauded by the WSJ for producing alumni who are among the top earners in their fields, a new report on “America’s Best Colleges” from the newspaper ranks the university at 212th among national universities. 

The ranking used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which provides median earnings for “individuals that were federally aided, were working and were not enrolled in school as of the measurement point” who enrolled in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.

“While we are pleased to see this ranking highlight student-debt ratio, and that William & Mary had the third-fastest payoff time frame among Virginia universities for graduate’s earnings to exceed the net price of their degree,” said Martin, “it also excludes anyone who didn’t receive federal aid — about 65% of W&M graduates — plus anyone enrolled in graduate school. This provides an incomplete picture.”

Another recent ranking that took financial factors into account was The New York Times Magazine’s “College-Access Index,” a list of the country’s most selective universities ranked in order of economic diversity. The third iteration of the report, the 2023 version measured economic diversity by analyzing the share of students receiving Pell Grants.

The NYT Magazine report, however, neglected to include Pell recipients who transfer into the university. A higher percentage of W&M transfers are Pell recipients, and the university remains focused on its total Pell enrollment, Martin said. This fall, the university increased that percentage to 18.1%, reflecting a 30% increase in the number of in-state Pell recipients over the past decade. Over that same time, the number of overall Pell Grant recipients has increased 14.1%, Martin said.

“There is no doubt William & Mary has work to do to improve socioeconomic diversity on campus,” Martin said. “We have made it a priority to increase access and affordability through initiatives such as the Pell scholarship we announced last year to provide full tuition and fees for all in-state Pell Grant recipients, and the goal to increase our in-state percentage of Pell recipients to 20% by 2026.”

A values-based approach

In response to rankings turbulence, Rowe last month established a presidential working group charged with recommending a values-based approach to rankings. The working group, chaired by Martin, includes student, faculty, staff and alumni representatives.

The charge, in part, reads, “William & Mary’s mission statement defines the institution as ‘a preeminent, public research university, grounded in the liberal arts and sciences since 1693.’ The university recognizes that rankings are important because they matter to people who matter to us – prospective students, alumni and others. Yet William & Mary’s mission statement also defines critical aspects of the university that may or may not align with a respective ranking. A values-based approach will aid the William & Mary community when engaging rankings, individually or collectively.”

Former Rector Todd A. Stottlemyer ‘85 serves on the working group.

“As an alumnus and a CEO, I see this the way President Rowe does – this is an opportunity to cut through the noise and set ourselves apart,” Stottlemyer said. “Our prospective students care about great academics, faculty mentoring with small classes, and pathways to successful careers. These are core values for William & Mary. It’s time to focus on what is so distinctive about William & Mary as the most personal of all public universities. A great university defines that on its own terms.”

, University News & Media