Forbes College Rankings 2014: Short Honeymoon for Publics Is Over

Last year, we wrote that the Forbes America’s Best Colleges rankings had suddenly become more friendly to public universities after several years of relegating many of them to the high three figures in the numerical rankings.   In 2013, 19 public universities (not counting the military academies) made it into the top 100; but this year, that number dropped to only 14.

Worse, all but two of the 14 that remain in the top 100 lost ground, some by a large amount.

It is not unusual for anyone who ranks or evaluates colleges to make changes in their ranking methodologies.  We have done the same for our next edition of the Review, although we will not be using numerical rankings this time around.

For 2014, Forbes (or rather the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), which does the work for the magazine) has increased the weight of the student debt factor from 17.5% to 25%.  At the same time, the weight for “Academic Success” went down modestly, from 11.25% to 10%.  Both of these probably hurt public universities: the debt, because state support still has not caught up with costs; the academic success because CCAP counts National Science Foundation Fellowships and Fulbright awards, many of which are won by students and faculty at public research universities.

Yet here is another puzzling aspect of the rankings: the Forbes Best Value rankings, which about which we will write in a future post, list many of the same schools that dropped in the overall rankings.  And student debt is a major metric in the value rankings.

At least the bizarre rankings that marked the Forbes list for the first few years have mostly gone away.  No longer do we see, for example, a university ranked 320th one year and rise to 168th the next.  And it is good to keep in mind that the Forbes rankings lump all private and public universities and liberal arts colleges into one huge group; so a Forbes ranking of, say, 65 or 70 for a public university is a much stronger ranking than a U.S. News “national university ranking” in the same range.

Still, it is difficult to understand how some of the public universities could have dropped so far in just one year.

Below are the Forbes rankings of public universities in the top 100, for 2013 and 2014 respectively.  The first parenthesis is the 2013 ranking, and the second parenthesis is the 2014 ranking.

U.S. Military Academy— (7) (9)

UC Berkeley— (22) (37)

U.S. Naval Academy (28) (27)

Virginia (29) (40)

Michigan (30) (45)

U.S. Air Force Academy (31) (34)

UCLA (34) (44)

UNC Chapel Hill (38) (50)

William & Mary (44) (41)

Illinois (53) (68)

Washington (55) (73)

UT Austin (66) (76)

Wisconsin  (68) (70)

Maryland  (73) (82)

Florida (74) (87)

Georgia Tech (83) (90)

Georgia (90) (94)

Penn State (93) (166)

UC Santa Barbara (96) (116)

Indiana (97) (107)

UC Davis (99) (113)