Several weeks ago, Northeastern University’s president dropped by The Washington Post to talk up the private institution in Boston.
Joseph E. Aoun wanted to get the word out about “experiential learning” programs that combine professional work with academic scholarship in an attempt to position students for high-powered careers.
But last week, as Northeastern continued its unusually sharp rise in the U.S. News and World Report annual college rankings, Aoun declined a request for comment.
The 20,000-student university has risen from 69th in 2010-11 to 42nd this year on the magazine’s annual list of national universities, the largest climb during that time among top-100 schools. That puts NU in a ranking tie with Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Aoun, president since 2006, did not want to be in the story.
In his June visit, Aoun said that his predecessor, Richard Freeland, had made it an explicit goal to push Northeastern into the U.S. News top 100. “And they did,” Aoun said. “They succeeded in doing that.” Aoun recalled that when he took over, Northeastern was ranked 98th. Boston Magazine this month documented the story of Freeland’s push.
It is rare for a school to rise on the U.S. News lists in such a sustained way. Among the factors that drive the rankings are reputational surveys, financial resources, admission rates, admission test scores and graduation rates. Critics say that the rankings are a meaningless exercise, based on a subjective formula and questionable data.
Aoun said his goal is not to climb in rankings. “Our goal is leadership,” he said. “In experiential education, we are the leaders worldwide.” He said that Northeastern, under his administration, has never promoted rankings in news releases.
Instead, he said, the school touts its cooperative education program. A co-op at Northeastern is essentially a semester-long commitment to a full-time, paid professional position, which is obtained through an application. Undergraduates can take up to three six-month co-ops in a five-year plan for a bachelor’s degree or two six-month co-ops in a four-year plan. Participating employers are based around the country and around the world.
Students typically start their first co-op in the second semester of their sophomore year or in the summer after their sophomore year. More than 90 percent of students take at least one co-op; 76 percent take two or more.
This study-work-study model of education is fairly unusual. Drexel University in Philadelphia is also known for co-op programs. The advantage of the model is real-world experience for students, in fields related to their majors. But a question that some prospective students might pose is whether all of the coming and going dilutes the experience they seek through residential education and campus life.
For potential employers, Aoun said, “it’s a pipeline for talent.”
For students, it’s a chance to jump-start their careers.
“That’s our claim to fame in terms of education,” Aoun said.