Willard J. Houghton and the U.S. News Rankings

September 24, 2019

Like most college and university presidents, I take the U.S. News and other college rankings with several grains of salt. Their methodologies are certainly not perfect and no standing on such rankings can determine whether a particular college will be a good match for a particular student.

I do take some satisfaction in the fact that, over the years, Houghton has remained remarkably stable within the rankings of the national liberal arts colleges. We appear, usually behind Wheaton and Westmont, as one of a handful of Christian colleges and universities to make that list. This year, I noted in passing that our ranking among liberal arts colleges went up from 142 to 124.

But what really caught my attention this fall was Houghton’s place in one of the special categories that U.S. News has been calling out in recent years. We ranked #3 behind only Cornell College in Iowa and Agnes Scott College in Georgia for what U.S. News calls “social mobility.” This category looks at the success of particular institutions to enroll and graduate students who come from the neediest sectors of our society, as measured by our percentage of PELL recipients. PELL-eligible students come from families with an average annual income of $35,321.00. Each year, approximately 40% of our students fall into this category.

This is a ranking worthy of our notice! It comes at a time when, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 10% of the entire U.S. population have some college credits but dropped out before receiving a degree. According to “The Dropout Scandal” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2, 2019, pp. B6-9), Dropouts are nearly twice as likely as college grads to be unemployed, and they are four times more likely to default in student loans, thus wrecking their credit and shrinking their career options.” (p. B6)

Houghton’s showing on social mobility, much more than our general ranking, is a designation of which our founder, Willard J. Houghton, would be proud. Long before the Department of Education began speaking about “access and affordability,” Willard J. Houghton realized that education could make the difference for poor young men and women—not only developing their own gifts, but empowering them to change the trajectory of their families and the society around them. For Houghton’s founder, this was part of the work of God’s Kingdom. It was a Gospel imperative—to seek out and to steward the treasure that God had entrusted to young people who would not otherwise receive a high-quality education.

The Work of the Kingdom; the Work of a Christian Institution

This is the work that Houghton has been doing for over 130 years. It is not easy work, but it is work for which Houghton is distinctively prepared. In the same Chronicle article, the author identifies “building connections” as one of the solutions to the “dropout problem.” It matters when students “recognize that they are full-fledged members of a community that takes them seriously as individuals rather than as members of an impersonal bureaucracy that batch processes them like Perdue chickens.” (p. B9).

At Houghton, students find themselves at the core of a community of faculty, staff, fellow students and alumni who are committed to helping them realize their full potential and make an impact in the world they never thought possible. It was no accident that our founder located the college amidst the quiet natural beauty of the Genesee River Valley, where students could focus their attention on study and on community—though also where students would have contact, through their faculty and staff and the local church, with a large Vision of our world and its needs. We are committed to creating this same kind of nourishing and empowering community in our new programs in Houghton Buffalo, Houghton Utica and Houghton Online.

As we begin this 2019-20 academic year, we commit ourselves once again—with gratitude—to Houghton’s privileged Mission of preparing young men and women from “diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds” to “lead and labor as scholar-servants” in the rapidly changing global context of the 21st century.

Thanks, U.S. News, for noticing what matters most to us.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976