Most Read: Local

Posted at 05:47 PM ET, 09/09/2011

The ups and downs of U.S. News rankings


(An American University freshman gets a pie in the face. AU has risen 20 places in the U.S. News rankings since 1991. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post))
Think U.S. News rankings never change? Ask Randy Woodson.

He’s chancellor of North Carolina State University, whose ranking has plummeted 27 places, from 84 to 111, in seven years on the signature list of top national universities.

The premier collegiate rankings, which publish Sept. 13, are known for how little they change. And that’s true, for the most part, at the top of the list. We know, for example, that this year’s list of top 10 liberal arts schools includes nine of the 10 schools that appeared on last year’s list. Davidson College is out, and Claremont McKenna is in, according to a sneak preview.

But track the rankings over five or 10 or 20 years, and a pattern emerges of distinct winners and losers. Most colleges bounce up and down without consequence. A few rise or fall in dramatic fashion. Here are some examples:

Drexel University has seen its ranking rise from 123 to 86 since 2004, the first year U.S. News extended its national university rankings to something approaching their current length.

Fordham has climbed, in those years, from 84 to 56, very nearly cracking the coveted Top 50 on the U.S. News list.

American University has ascended from 99 to 79.

College presidents and deans revel in the gains and wince at the losses. Alumni, current students and — especially — trustees worry deeply about a downward trend, even if other indicators (like admission rate, yield and SAT scores) are moving in the right direction.

“If you ask what impact it’s had on us, our applications are at an all-time high,” Woodson said. “But rankings do matter. Our students do pay attention to them.”

North Carolina State has declined in rank along with many other public universities. Ranker-in-chief Bob Morse says that trend reflects the steady decline in state subsidies to public institution, which, in turn, drives up class sizes and (arguably) erodes overall quality.

Public university leaders say the rankers effectively discriminate against public institutions by ranking them at least partly by wealth; no public institution can match the top private schools in endowment or per-student spending.

The very fact that no public institution ranks among the top 20 national universities proves “that the criteria they use to rank universities militates against public universities,” said Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of Berkeley. “That’s just an empirical fact.”

As previously reported here, Berkeley, UCLA, U-Va. and the other top publics have all declined in rank on the U.S. News list over the past 20 years. Berkeley, generally regarded as the nation’s finest public university, has declined in rank from 13 to 22.

Birgeneau notes that the U.S. News criteria don’t include such factors as share of graduates who go on to earn doctorates or Nobel prizes, nor an institution’s socioeconomic diversity, all strengths for public universities. Berkeley alone enrolls as many low-income students, as measured in Pell grants, as the entire Ivy League.

Berkeley’s current ranking, behind such private up-and-comers as Emory, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, “defies conventional wisdom,” said Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at the College of William and Mary (current ranking: 31).

And what about universities whose rankings go up?

AU’s fate on U.S. News presents a quandary. The institution has climbed 20 spots since 2004. Yet, AU still finds itself far down the list of top national universities, at 79. AU competes for the same top students as higher-ranked schools, such as neighboring George Washington and Georgetown. Those students — the ones with straight-A averages and near-perfect SATs — will not be particularly impressed to know that American is the 79th-best university in America.

“It’s not something that we use in our recruiting materials at all,” said Sharon Alston, director of admissions at AU. She allows, however, that the school’s upward trajectory “validates the work we have been doing, and it shows that it pays off.”

The higher a school’s rank, the more movement matters.

Cornell has descended in rank from 9 to 15 since 1991, falling out of the vaunted Top 10. Penn has climbed from 13 to 5, more or less displacing Cornell.

Harvard, Princeton and Yale rank about the same now as they did then. But Columbia has ascended from 10 to 4, and Northwestern has climbed from 23 to 12. Washington University in St. Louis has risen from 24 to 13.

Vanderbilt wasn’t even ranked in 1991 — it landed unceremoniously onto a list of 25 schools dubbed Quartile One. In 2011, it ranks 17.

Twenty years ago, Wake Forest didn’t even make the top 50; it fell into a cohort of schools called Quartile Two. Today, it ranks 25.

The University of Rochester, by contrast, has declined from 25 to 37.

There’s movement among top liberal arts schools, as well.

Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams have merely switched places at the top of the list over the past 20 years. But Wesleyan and Smith have both fallen out of the Top 10, Wesleyan declining from 7 to 12 and Smith from 9 to 14.

Haverford has climbed onto that list, ascending from 21 to 9. Middlebury has risen from 8 to 4. Oberlin has fallen from 14 to 23.

By  |  05:47 PM ET, 09/09/2011

Categories:  Admissions, Finance, Liberal Arts, Rankings | Tags:  American University, College of William and Mary

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company