How Much Do U.S. News Rankings Favor Private Universities?

Over the years, U.S. News has established its annual “Best Colleges” report as the most important ranking guide, but our analysis of the rankings indicates that some leading public universities have not been ranked as highly as they deserve to be. The most striking examples are UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan. In general, however, the U.S. News rankings are relatively fair to public universities, given the criteria that the magazine uses.

In the early years of the Best Colleges report, public universities were frequent visitors to the top 25. But North Carolina fell from 20th in 1991 to 29th in 2012; the University of Virginia from 18th to 25th; and U.C. Berkeley from 13th to 21st. In the years since 1991, the five leading public universities have fallen seven places in the rankings.

One reason for the declining presence of leading public universities among the top ranks of all universities is clear: money. State support for public universities is down sharply, resulting in severe cuts at almost every public institution. And money has a very great deal to do with the U.S. News rankings, often with good reason.

See our Adjusted U.S. News Rankings for the Top 25 Below

The U.S. News category of Faculty Resources, which places a premium on faculty pay and small class size, is one of the most influential factors in achieving a high graduation rate, an extremely important outcome metric in the U.S. News rankings. And Faculty Resources are more in evidence when enrollment is relatively small and funding is generous.

In addition to Faculty Resources, the other factors that have the largest impact on the graduation rate are Academic Reputation and Student Selectivity. Assuming that a high graduation rate is an indisputably significant outcome, we have taken these three factors as being the most important to university rankings, at least in the methodology used by U.S. News.

We do not include the graduation rate itself as a metric because in doing so we would create a magnifying effect; i.e., the graduation rate would multiply an effect that is already strongly present in the other factors. We have also excluded a metric for Alumni Giving and Financial Resources, in part because the former strongly favors private universities and because U.S. News appears to include different components for public universities in the Financial Resources category. Therefore, in essence, we are analyzing the universities in a way that considers the due impact of funding but does not over-emphasize that impact.

Although we analyzed all 52 universities (including ties) that are listed as the top 50 national universities, the results for several public universities ranked lower than 25 appear to be strongly influenced by other factors, including unusually high undergraduate enrollment levels. Some of these schools were ranked higher by U.S News than by our adjusted rankings, and some were ranked lower by U.S. News. Of the latter, it appears that UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara are the most likely to have been underrated, though not because of unusually high undergraduate enrollment levels. The comparative rankings for several schools, public and private, in the lower 25 do not vary significantly (by more than 3 places).

Below is an adjusted ranking of the top 25 national universities in 2012:

University—-2012 Ranking—-Adjusted Ranking

Harvard——-2012 (1)—-Adjusted (1)
Princeton—–2012 (1)—-Adjusted (2)
Yale———-2012 (3)—-Adjusted (2)
Columbia——2012 (4)—-Adjusted (6)
MIT———–2012 (5)—-Adjusted (4)
Stanford——2012 (5)—-Adjusted (5)
Caltech——-2012 (5)—-Adjusted (7)
Penn———-2012 (5)—-Adjusted (8)
Chicago——-2012 (5)—-Adjusted (9)
Duke———-2012 (10)—Adjusted (10)
Dartmouth—–2012 (11)—Adjusted (15)
Northwestern–2012 (12)—Adjusted (11)
Johns Hopkins-2012 (13)—Adjusted (11)
Washington U–2012 (14)—Adjusted (17)
Brown———2012 (15)—Adjusted (11)
Cornell——-2012 (15)—Adjusted (11)
Vanderbilt—-2012 (17)—Adjusted (18)
Rice———-2012 (17)—Adjusted (19)
Notre Dame—-2012 (19)—Adjusted (21)
Emory———2012 (20)—Adjusted (23)
UC Berkeley—2012 (21)—Adjusted (16)
Georgetown—-2012 (22)—Adjusted (21)
Carnegie Mellon-2012 (23)—Adjusted (24)
USC———–2012 (23)—Adjusted (27)
UCLA———-2012 (25)—Adjusted (24)
Virginia——2012 (25)—Adjusted (26)
Michigan——2012 (28)—Adjusted (19)

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