Editor’s note: This post updated on October 1, 2016, after release of Times Higher Ed Rankings for 2016.
It is likely that Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has the sharpest eye of anyone in America when it comes to seeing how well U.S. universities compare with rapidly improving institutions throughout the world. What he sees is not good.
U.S. public universities are losing ground to foreign institutions, most notably in Europe and Scandinavia.
(Below the following text are three tables. The first compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016. The second shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the same years. The third and final table shows the rise in rankings for U.S. private universities.
Altbach cites the work of colleague Jamil Salmi, who found that there are at least 36 “excellence initiatives” around the world “that have pumped billions of dollars into the top universities in these countries — with resulting improvements in quality, research productivity, and emerging improvements in the rankings of these universities. Even in cash-strapped Russia, the ‘5-100’ initiative is providing $70 million into each of 15 selected universities to help them improve and compete globally. [Emphasis added.]
“At the same time, American higher education is significantly damaging its top universities through continuous budget cuts by state governments. One might call this an American “unExcellence initiative” as the world’s leading higher education systematically damages its top research universities. Current developments are bad enough in a national context, but in a globalized world, policies in one country will inevitably have implications elsewhere. Thus, American disinvestment, coming at the same time as significant investment elsewhere, will magnify the decline of a great higher education system.”
One reason: All the bad publicity about cuts in funding, along with high-profile political grandstanding that has received far too much attention throughout the world academic community. For example, UT Austin endured years of highly publicized attacks by former Governor Perry during his second term, and UW Madison has been hurt by similar actions on the part of Governor Scott Walker.
Unless state legislatures move toward excellence and restore pre-Great Recession funding levels, there will be “a revolution in global higher education and create space for others at the top of the rankings. It would also be extraordinarily damaging for American higher education and for America’s competitiveness in the world.”
The average ranking for the 23 U.S. publics among the top 100 in the world in 2011 was 39th, while in 2016 it was 49th–and only 15 publics were among the top 100. Meanwhile, leading U.S. private universities have seen both their average reputation rankings and overall rankings rise since 2011.
To illustrate Professor Altbach’s point, we have generated the tables below.
This table compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016.
Top 100 Overall
The following table shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the years 2011 and 2016. UC Davis is the only school to rise, while most dropped significantly.
Times Higher Ed Rankings
UC San Diego
UC Santa Barbara
This last table shows the rise in rankings for leading U.S. private universities for the years 2011 and 2016.
Editor’s Note: The following post examines the claim by the New America Foundation that acceptance to elite colleges is not any more difficult than in the past, with 80% of highly qualified applicants still being accepted by elite schools. What we found is that even with the additional elite slots offered by honors colleges and programs, there are not enough slots to accommodate 80% of elite applicants. Although the acceptance rate as indicated by probability statistics (given multiple applications by each student) might show a high acceptance rate, the enrollment rate must be significantly lower than 80% for elite students. Updated with important changes, March 21, 2016.
Carey has little use for research universities, a “hybrid” form of higher education whereby students are offered the “bait” of being able to study with well-known research professors only to experience a “switch” once they are enrolled, finding themselves under the inept tutelage of callow TA’s and lower level faculty. The advent of MOOCs will give rise to the university of, and for, everyone, leading also to the “brutal unmasking” of hybrid universities as the pretenders Carey believes them to be.
At the end of the post, there is a list of colleges, universities, and public honors programs with mean SAT scores of 1300 or above.
Setting aside Carey’s curious approach of proclaiming the end times for traditional colleges on the one hand while announcing the cheerful prospects for enrolling in these same colleges on the other, we will focus only on his assertion that approximately 80% of highly qualified college applicants are now able to gain acceptance to an “elite” college, never mind the dire comments on how much tougher it is now to get into such institutions.
According to Carey, “the slots themselves [at elite colleges] aren’t becoming more scarce and the number of students competing with one another isn’t growing.”As we suggest below, the problem with this statement is that the slots Carey is talking about seem to be plentiful because the colleges he includes are not as elite as the students he is tracking.
Therefore, while it may be true that 80% of applicants gain acceptance to the 113 colleges he is tracking, it is highly unlikely that there are in fact 113 schools whose mean test scores match the threshold scores of his applicant cohort, or that have sufficient slots to actually enroll those students. Indeed, the only way all of these students can attend colleges that even approximate their level of credentials is for many of the students to attend the very “hybrid” universities Carey criticizes.
(The New America Foundation also takes public universities to task for offering too much of their financial aid resources to students who are meritorious but not so needy as others. We will comment on this assertion in a later post.)
Carey defines elite applicants as those with SAT scores of 1300 or higher, or with a comparable ACT score. Elite colleges are those that are among “the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.”
We followed up on Carey’s assertion by doing some research of our own. Using the 25th percentile scores and the 75th percentile scores in the 2015 U.S. News rankings and dividing the total by two in order to arrive at an approximate average, we found that, rather than 113 colleges with average test scores of 1300 or higher, there are only about 86. In addition, there are 51 public honors colleges/programs with mean test scores of 1300 or higher. For purposes of illustration, we assumed that there was a like number of private honors colleges and programs, though we believe this is a generous estimate.
Then we calculated the number of students who took the ACT and SAT in 2014 and who score in the 91st or 92nd percentile or higher on one or both tests. An SAT score of 1300 is the 91st percentile; an ACT score of 29 or higher is also at the 92nd percentile level. We estimated that 25 percent of the 345,250 students took both tests; again, this is probably a generous estimate. This estimate should also take into account the relatively small number of high scorers who do not have high school GPA’s commensurate with their test scores.
The result: about 259,000 students met the test score threshold in 2014.
Next, we calculated that of the 86 colleges and universities with mean test scores at the threshold or higher, there were 131,077 places for freshmen in 2014. This leaves a deficit of 127,923 places for highly talented students, or more than 49%.
Using exact figures for public honors colleges and programs, we added another 20,917 places. Then we added another 20,917 places for private university honors colleges even though we doubt that there are that many honors places in private schools.
Therefore, the total number of “elite” places in 2014, including honors program places, was approximately 172,911. Subtracting this number from 259,000 still yields a deficit of elite places in the amount of 86,089.
New America claims 80 percent of elite students were accepted, but it is extremely unlikely that they could have actually found a place in the elite group of schools we have identified. So, if we take .8 x 259,000 students, the result is 207,000 students who should have been accepted by elite schools. Subtracting 172,911 places from 207,000 still leaves a deficit of elite places in the amount of 34,289 places. Again, the actual deficit is probably higher.
From these calculations, it appears that the acceptance rate for elite students, if they were to apply to schools with mean test scores at the threshold level or higher and not to less selective schools, would not be 80%, and it is very unlikely that there could be enough truly elite places for 80%. This is based on the calculation 172,911/259,000. That there is “room” for about 67% of elite students in elite colleges may not be a panic situation, but some elite students should be prepared to attend colleges whose mean scores are somewhat lower than their scores.
For the time being, there are solid alternatives at relatively low cost, at least for in-state students: those discredited “hybrid” institutions. Washington, Wisconsin, UT Austin, Florida, Penn State, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State, Georgia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Purdue, and Clemson may not have had average test scores in 2014 that meet the New America definition; but surely many of the elite students choose to attend these universities, in addition to those who are accepted by the more selective honors programs at most of these schools. Indeed, New America probably included these and other prominent public and private universities in its list of 113, despite their average test scores being somewhat lower than those of the elite students they tracked.
The estimated total number of freshmen slots at the 14 state schools above is about 104,771. At these schools, there are perhaps 40,000 to 52,500 freshmen who meet the elite definition.
This should leave no doubt about the need for these universities to sustain or enhance their current level of excellence: they are necessary, as are public and private honors programs, if top students are to actually “reach” schools that approximate their abilities.
Below are the universities, colleges, and public honors programs we have identified as having mean test scores of SAT 1300/ACT 29 or higher. Not included is a list of private honors colleges that meet the threshold; as noted above, we have estimated the number of students accepted by these honors colleges. The public honors colleges and programs are in listed in bold type at the end.
UC San Diego
William & Mary
Univ of Miami
Stevens Inst of Tech
Franklin and Marshall
Reed Illinois Rutgers Binghamton Georgia Clemson Minnesota South Carolina UT AustinPlan II Virginia Tech Stony Brook Kansas Ohio State Auburn Kentucky Oklahoma Tennessee Washington Connecticut Florida Penn State Miami Oh Texas A&M Nebraska UC Davis Indiana Delaware Florida St Ohio Univ UC Santa Barbara Michigan St Utah Purdue Colorado Vermont Temple Missouri North Carolina St Massachusetts UC Irvine Univ at Buffalo Wisconsin Mississippi Colorado St LSU Oregon St Iowa Oklahoma St Oregon Arizona St Arizona
As promised, we are providing a table showing the U.S. News national university rankings from 2008–2015. Listed below are the yearly rankings of 125 national universities that were included in the first tier in all the years covered. Sixty three universities are public, and 62 are private.
As a group, the private universities have had an average increase in the rankings of two places, while the public universities have had an average decline of three places, demonstrating what we have observed in the past–public universities are, in general, not on an upward trajectory in the rankings.
One reason for the phenomenon is increased “gaming” of the rankings. Some institutions, public and private, but mostly the latter, have geared their marketing and merit aid to increase the number of applicants and lower their acceptance rates accordingly. This makes them more “selective” and helps to improve their rankings. Northeastern University, for example, has risen an astonishing 54 places in the rankings since 2008 and is now ranked higher than Washington, Penn State, UT Austin, Wisconsin, Tulane, Florida, Pepperdine, George Washington, Maryland, Pitt, and many others. It is now tied with Illinois, UC Irvine, and RPI. How likely is it that in the space of eight years Northeastern has really improved from 96th to 42nd?
The U.S. News rankings not only over-emphasize the metrics related to a university’s financial resources but also, especially in the last five years or so, reward selectivity when, in fact, the results of the selectivity are already considered. Why should Stanford be rewarded for having an acceptance rate of 5% and be rewarded for having high graduation and retention rates, both of which are largely the result of selectivity. Using test scores as a factor in predicting what grad rates should be is fine, as is rewarding or penalizing schools for exceeding or not meeting such predictions. But the high scores themselves and the low acceptance percentages merely duplicate what is more properly measured by outcomes.
We will have more to say on these issues in the future. But for now, here are the historical rankings, the average of each school across eight years, and the increase or decline of each school from 2008 to the present. The universities are listed in order of their average ranking across the years.
Editor’s note: The following list comes from a post by college consultant Nancy Griesemer, who writes regular for the Washington Examiner. Read the full post, and consult the always fascinating UCLA Freshman Report for more information.
Griesemer notes in her post that while 73% of applicants are accepted by their first choice college, only 55% end up enrolling at that institution. Clearly, cost is a big factor behind these stats, and points to an issue of concern to us: finding a place for students smart enough to get into elite private colleges but cannot attend the private school of their choice for financial reasons.
In addition, with the current emphasis on selectivity as a major metric in the U.S. News rankings, highly talented students are being ever more widely recruited by elite universities and, at the same time, finding their odds of acceptance significantly reduced. For these students, the relatively high first choice acceptance cited above does not obtain.
So…insufficient merit aid to offset costly private tuition and expenses, plus capricious selectivity designed to make schools look better by rejecting smart applicants, have helped boost public honors programs where students can find quality at a lower cost, along with a better overall mix of students.
The arrows below indicate whether the response percentage has increased or decreased since the previous year’s survey.
1. College has a very good academic reputation (65.4 percent)↑
2. This college’s graduates get good jobs (53.4 percent)↑
3. I was offered financial assistance (46.9 percent)↓
4. The cost of attending this college (44.9 percent)↓
5. College has a good reputation for social activities (42.8 percent)↓
6. A visit to the campus (42.4 percent)↓
7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (36.6 percent)↓
8. Grads get into good grad/professional schools (32.9 percent)↓
9. Percent of students that graduate from this college (31.1 percent)↑
10. Wanted to live near home (20.7 percent)↑
11. Information from a website (18.8 percent)↑
12. Rankings in national magazines (18 percent)↑
13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (17.2 percent)↓
14. Admitted early decision and/or early action (15.7 percent)↑
15. Could not afford first choice (14.1 percent)↓
16. Not offered aid by first choice (10.6 percent)↓
17. High school counselor advised me (10.4 percent)↑
18. Athletic department recruited me (9.1 percent)↓
19. My relatives wanted me to come here (8 percent)↑
20. Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.3 percent)↓
21. My teacher advised me (7.2 percent)↑
22. Private college counselor advised me (4.6 percent)↑
23. Ability to take online courses (4.1 percent)↑
Keeping up with the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grants is an annual project we undertake because the grant stipend, valued currently at $32,000 a year for three years of graduate work plus a separate $12,000 a year paid directly to the university for costs, are so generous that prospective undergrads might want to know graduates of their college of choice perform in the NSF GRFP competition.
The grants go to students with very high college gpa’s (around 3.70 and above) along with outstanding GRE test scores. Grantees must submit proposals to do research in one of the STEM disciplines or social sciences. Most grants are for STEM students.
This year we will list the top 30 universities, both public and private, whose students were named as NSF GRFP fellows in 2015. It is true that many public universities have much larger overall undergraduate enrollments, so one might expect that those schools would have the most NSF fellows; on the other hand, the private elites are far more selective, and one would think that a far higher percentage of their undergraduates should be competitive for the awards. We write primarily for prospective honors students and their parents, so our perspective is that the best students in leading public universities can compete with those coming from private elites, and the NSF awards are one indication that this is the case.
One indication of a rough parity is that the top two universities are far and away the best this year–MIT and UC Berkeley–one private, the other public. Both are perennial leaders in this category.
Below are the leading universities for NSF fellowships in 2015. All the schools had at least 15 NSF fellows.
In this age of anxiety about finding a good job after college, many parents are understandably concerned if their sons and daughters haven’t settled on a major in their first year of study, or if they have changed their major from a lucrative field such as engineering to, say, a social science field.
The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA is renowned for its insightful reports on the characteristics and attitudes of college students, especially during the freshman and senior years. The latest HERI survey report on Your First College Year has revealing data about the career focus (or lack thereof) and the frequency with which majors are changed during the extremely important first year. The survey is based on responses of more than 10,000 students at 47 colleges and universities.
Here’s a quick summary:
90% of first-year students found that college had “frequently” or “occasionally” inspired them to think in new ways;
partly as a result, 34% changed their majors;
32% changed their career choices;
59% thought it was important to be focused on their career path after college;
but only 25% had a clear idea of how to achieve career goals.
Even though many first-year students were not clear about majors and careers, their ability to sort all of this out, along with other problems they will encounter, grew dramatically during that critical year:
31% of students reported at the beginning of the year that they were only “average” at critical thinking skills, but of these, 43% reported their skills as “somewhat of a strength” at year’s end;
and of the 27% of students who felt at the beginning of the year that they were only average in problem-solving skills, 43% thought their problem-solving skills were somewhat of a strength at the end of the year.
So parents, if your son or daughter doesn’t have it all figured out after that first year, take heart. The very complexity that they are dealing with is teaching them at the same time how to figure things out, including their eventual majors and career paths.
What is most important about the “college experience”? Good grades, of course. But a recent report finds that the most important elements can be more difficult to measure.
Most parents and prospective students place an understandable emphasis on the employment and graduate school placement prospects for the graduates of a particular institution, but The Gallup Purdue Index of Well-Being makes a powerful argument that the long-term well-being for college grads is largely the result of the degree of engagement they have in the workplace, and not just the amount of money they earn.
Given the high cost of college, the Report assumes that the benefits of graduation should go beyond high starting pay and include the enjoyment of a well-lived life. Gallup and Purdue do not discount the value of financial rewards but place them in a broader qualitative context.
The Report measures and describes the college experiences that lead to more fulfilling workplace engagement and a greater sense of well-being in the following areas:
Purpose–enjoying work and being motivated to do your best.
Social Well-Being–having love and support in your life.
Financial Well-Being–having sufficient financial resources to reduce stress and enhance security.
Community Well-Being–working within the local community, enjoying where you live, pride in the community.
Physical Well-Being–feeling well enough to do good work and enjoy life.
So what are the college experiences that promote engagement in the workplace and a sense of well-being in the above areas?
Students who believed that their college was a great fit for them (regardless of size and selectivity), who had professors who showed interest and made their subjects exciting, and who believed that their school prepared them well for life after college had the greatest degree of workplace engagement.
The Report demonstrates that the type of college makes little difference in workplace engagement and overall well-being, except that for-profit colleges do not promote a high degree of well-being and engagement. The differences between public and private not-for-profit colleges, and between highly selective and less selective colleges, were minimal. The most important elements were whatstudents were doing in college and how they were experiencing their activities, rather than the elite or non-elite status of the school. This finding seems to enforce what most college admissions counselors say: the most important thing for the student is finding the best fit.
More specifically, college experiences that promote engagement and prepare students for life after college are these:
Professors and mentors who provide inspiration, excitement, encouragement, and commitment.
Internships, preferably paid at some point, that directly connect university learning with the outside world.
Extracurricular activities, including social and special interest clubs, that directly connect learning with social engagement.
Long-term projects of a semester or more, including theses and capstone projects, which associate education with “deep learning” and not merely with rushed preparation for exams.
Minimal student loan debt, which is directly related to financial well-being.
The Report suggests that parents and prospective students should make direct inquiries about the best professors in the student’s proposed field of study and their availability; undergrad research programs and the means of gaining mentors; the availability of internships, including some that are paid; the presence of clubs or social groups that align with the student’s interests; and the opportunities for “deep learning” and the ways students can be aware of them and seize the opportunities.
One further implication of the Report is that a dramatic increase in online instruction would seriously diminish the advantages and a residential college experience can have for future workplace engagement and well-being.
In conclusion, we will note that many public honors colleges and programs make all of these elements more accessible, or even a part of their completion requirements. Many require an honors thesis; they all provide opportunities for social engagement with serious students; most have connections to undergrad researchers and mentors; and most connect their students with small classes and top professors. In addition, most have special honors residence halls and enhanced opportunities for financial aid, including non-need-based merit aid.
The 2015 edition of the Princeton Review takes the most popular college majors and then matches them with the 20 leading universities for those majors, as determined by student surveys and by advisers that the Review uses to assist with the rankings.
Four public universities–Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan, and UT Austin–made the top 20 lists for all three business-related majors covered by the Review: Accounting, Business/Finance, and Marketing.
In addition, James Madison University, the University of Houston, Michigan State, and Miami University made the top 20 lists in at least two of the business-related fields:
James Madison and the University of Houston–accounting and marketing; Michigan State–accounting and business/finance; and Miami University–business/finance and marketing.
Fifteen additional public universities made one of the top 20 lists:
Clemson, College of Charleston, Penn State, Temple, Texas A&M, Illinois, and UT Dallas–accounting.
Arizona State, Christopher Newport, CUNY Baruch, CUNY Brooklyn, Florida State, Portland State, Ohio University, and UC Berkeley–business/finance.
Central Florida, South Florida, and Mississippi–marketing.
In another post, Honors College, Honors Program–What’s the Difference?, we noted among other things that the average honors class size in public honors colleges is about 19 students per section, and in public honors programs it is about 22 students per section. These averages are for all honors courses only, not for all courses an honors student might take on the way to graduation.
The averages above include data for the many smaller honors seminars, often interdisciplinary rather than discipline-focused. The average class size for seminars is in the 14-19 student range. Please bear in mind that seminars often count for gen ed requirements, and their small size is a big advantage, aside from the advantages of their interdisciplinary approach.
But what about honors class size averages for sections in the major academic disciplines? Partly in preparation for our new book, we took took the honors sections from 16 of the public universities we will review in the book and then calculated the actual enrollment averages in each section. The academic disciplines we included were biology and biochemistry; chemistry; computer science and engineering; economics; English; history; math; physics; political science; and psychology. The honors colleges and programs included three of the largest in the nation, along with several smaller programs.
Given the perilous state of the humanities, it is no surprise that the smallest classes are in English and history, while the largest are in computer science, chemistry, biology, and political science.
Here are the results of our recent analysis:
Biology–63 sections, average of 38.6 students. (Bear in mind that many intro biology classes are not all-honors and are generally much larger, 100 or more, with separate weekly honors discussion sections, each with 10-20 students. Same for into chemistry.)
Chemistry–33 sections, average of 40.3 students.
Computer Science/Computer Engineering–18 sections, average 54.3 students.
Economics–49 sections, average of 31.2 students. (This is in most cases a significant improvement over enrollment in non-honors class sections.)
English–110 sections, average of 19.4 students. This does not include many even smaller honors seminars that have a humanities focus.
History–58 sections, average of 16.2 students. This likewise does not include many even smaller honors seminars with a humanities/history emphasis.
Math–44 sections, average of 24.7 students. Most of the math sections are in calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, topology, vector analysis.
Physics–30 sections, average of 25.5 students. Again, many honors programs do not offer honors classes in intro physics, so a student could still have large non-honors classes in that course.
Political Science–19 sections, average 34.4 students. The striking point here is the small number of polysci sections offered–just over 1 per program, per semester on average. The major has become extremely popular, so many sections outside of honors could be quite large.
Psychology–60 sections, average 28.9 students. Another popular major, but more class availability in general.
All college ranking “systems” receive criticism based on the criteria they use, and our own efforts to evaluate honors colleges and programs have received a fair share of that criticism.
One component of our rating system is a measure of each university’s attainment of prestigious awards, such as Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater scholarships. The criticism of this metric is based on the indisputable fact that not all of these awards are won by honors students. But our view is that probably most of them are won by students who have either been in a core honors program at some point or who have at least been involved in departmental honors. In addition, we believe that prospective honors students need to know what their prospects might be for winning one of these awards for themselves. (We also will continue to have a second major ranking section that excludes the metric for prestigious scholarships and emphasizes only honors-specific factors.)
With that said, we agree that we have been too narrow in the scholarships we measure, and we have come to believe, based on our updated analysis, that in the first edition of our book the honors programs at a few institutions, most notably at the University of Maryland, Illinois, UCLA, and Rutgers were underrated, in part because of the scholarships we emphasized at that time. Accordingly, after months of research, we will expand the awards we use in calculations for the next edition of our book. Awards in bold will be new additions.
Rhodes, Marshall, Gates Cambridge, Churchill, Truman, Udall, Goldwater, Fulbright*, National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Grants, Boren, and Gilman.
*Fulbright Student awards will now be counted for the three most recent years, as will Boren awards. Fulbrights will not be adjusted for the size of the institution as was the case in the first edition. Gilman scholars will be counted on a percentage basis.
The fact is that we have come to realize that only a very few public universities–or private universities, for that matter–excel in the attainment of all the awards listed above. To maintain that the awards most familiar to the public, such as Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman scholarships, should trump lesser known awards would be to discount the strong impact of undergraduate awards (Goldwater, Udall, Boren, Gilman) and their important relation, in some cases, to undergraduate research. Expanding the awards will also broaden the field of competition for our expanded list of programs, now 75 versus only 50 covered in the first edition.