The UC Universities and U.S. News

The U.S. News rankings for 2016 are  something of a tribute to major University of California universities. For 2016, six UC institutions are among the top 41 national universities, though none is higher than 20th (Berkeley). But if one looks closely at the UC scores in major output categories and in the financial resources category, there are some interesting differences. Academic reputation, though not a “pure” output category, is also discussed below.

As we have noted several times on this site, by assigning weight for the amount of financial resources and for the outputs related to those resources (class size, ratios of students to faculty), the U.S. News rankings magnify wealth. The outputs alone are what should be included.

  • UC Berkeley and UCLA, ranked 20th and 23rd  overall, are strong across the board. At both schools the majority of class sections have 20 students or fewer. Both have strong academic reputations along with high grad and retention rates. What most people might not guess is that UCLA is ranked 20th among all national universities in financial resources, and Berkeley 39th.
  • UC San Diego and UC Davis, ranked 39th and 41st overall in 2016, score well below average among top 20 public universities in the class size metrics. But along with solid grad/retention rates they also rank 21st and 32nd in financial resources, providing them with a boost more typical of private universities. UC San Diego and UC Davis both score 3.8 in the rep metric.
  • UC Irvine, ranked 39th, is well-balanced overall except that its academic reputation is a relatively modest 3.6 out of 5. This compares to UC Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.
  • UC Santa Barbara, meanwhile, has the second lowest academic rep score among the top 20 public schools, 3.5., and ranks only 67th in financial resources. But UCSB gets it done by having more smaller classes and strong grad/retention rates.

Except for some slight dropoffs in scores for academic reputation and the larger classes at Davis and San Diego, the UC campuses prosper in the rankings because they don’t have shortcomings in more than one or two metrics. And only one–UCSB–ranks worse than 60th in the questionable category of financial resources.

Two other factors that help the UC campuses in the rankings is that first-year entrants are highly qualified, both in test scores and class standing. Applicants who are not accepted as freshmen often attend community colleges and Cal State universities, and when they transfer with high GPA’s, they have a proven record that contributes to the high average grad rates at the six UC’s discussed above: 88%.

The UC approach is preferable by far to the automatic admission rules at the University of Texas at Austin, at least from the standpoint of rankings and graduation rates. The legislatively-imposed “top 10% rule” at UT (actually top 8% in 2016) leads to the admission of students whose class standing at a poor high school carries the same weight as the class standing at the most rigorous high schools.

If these students attended less demanding state universities for their first year or two and did extremely well (the California model), their chances of succeeding would likely improve. Many would not be admitted at all as freshmen to a major UC campus regardless of high school class rank because of low test scores or insufficiently demanding high school classes.

Even if UT Austin maintained its (too large) enrollment levels demanded by the legislature, having better qualified freshmen and transfers would kick up the graduation rate (now 81%). The academic reputation of UT (4.0) and, indeed the real strength of its academic departments, should place the university in the top five or six among public research institutions.

The problem in Austin is not UT; the problem is the state legislature a few blocks away.

Note: UT Austin has outstanding honors programs that concentrate the academic excellence at the university and feature much smaller classes: Plan II, Liberal Arts Honors, Business Honors, Engineering Honors, and multiple Natural Science honors programs.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted. In fairness to UT Austin, of which I am an alum, the multiple honors programs there are outstanding and offset the issues with class size and graduation rates by concentrating the excellence of the university.