Is It Time for Public Universities to Say Goodbye to U.S. News?

Dont’ be surprised if you hear in the near future that UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Stanford, MIT, and Cornell are “underperforming” universities when it comes to living up to their academic reputations.

While there are some private schools on the short list above, the most recent rankings twist by U.S. News would have you believe that far more public than private universities are performing below their perceived level of quality.

U.S. News, probably trying to answer criticism that its use of academic reputation as a metric is too subjective, is now comparing academic reputation to other factors it uses in order to allegedly demonstrate the validity of each school’s reputation.  The problem is that too many of the other factors used in this process are dependent on the financial resources of each school.

We now wonder whether this new analysis means that U.S. News is signaling a tilt toward the Forbes rankings, long known for being especially unfriendly to public universities.   Forbes’ quirky rankings do not use academic reputation but only “outcomes,” including membership in Who’s Who, salaries of graduates, and the clout of graduates in the corporate realm. The Forbes rankings are largely the product of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a leading critic of public research universities and an advocate for their privatization.

For a while now we have written about alternative ways to view the annual U.S. News college rankings. (Please see An Alternative List of 2013 U.S. News College Rankings for an example.)  Our view is that these rankings have placed too much emphasis on the financial resources and selectivity of institutions, often to the detriment of public universities.  So far, the negative impact of that over-emphasis has been significant but not profound.

But now the magazine is upping the ante–and lowering the “value” of public universities–by assigning overperformance or underperformance rankings based on a comparison of a given school’s undergraduate academic reputation with the magazine’s ranking.  If the U.S. News rank is better than the reputation rank, then the school has overperformed relative to its reputation.  If the magazine rank is worse than the reputation rank, then the school is underperforming.

Examples of alleged under and overperformance are listed below.

The magazine’s resident number-cruncher, Robert Morse, is clear about the new analysis and its impact on public research universities:

“Many of the overperformers are relatively small research universities that grant fewer doctorates and conduct less research than others schools in their category.  All the underperformers are large public universities—in some cases the top ‘flagship’ public in their state—whose academic reputation rank exceeds the performance in the academic indicators.” [Emphasis added.]

So, anyway, that’s the shot across the bow from U.S. News.  Now for some facts and explanation.

U.S. News, like Forbes, has always combined public and private universities and more recently has overemphasized financial factors, which works against most public universities.  Now, in this new analysis, U.S. News is also penalizing public universities that have managed to build strong faculties and earn the respect of high school counselors despite their relative lack of funding.

How the Financial Over-emphasis Affects Public Universities

State University A has a decent endowment but a high undergrad enrollment.  The university has a well-respected faculty, but class size is larger than at a private school.  The relative lack of funding means that the school has to balance faculty quality and class size and does not have the luxury of spending the enormous sums required to retain top professors and maintain small class size at the same time.

If University A stops hiring well-respected faculty and begins using, say, 1.5 adjuncts per single faculty slot, class size falls but so does academic reputation, along with the U.S News rank.  If University A goes back to hiring better faculty at higher cost, then class sizes increase, and the U.S. News methodology penalizes them on that end too.

If you say, well, more money always wins out, please go to our link above.  There we write that if you strip away the alumni giving, the impact of endowment, and other financial metrics and focus only on the essentials of academic reputation, graduation rates, and small classes, the publics do better overall than they do when the financial metrics and their magnifying impact are included.

It is one thing for U.S. News to show the impact of ample funding (smaller class size, more money for faculty), but adding points simply for having the money magnifies the impact of funding.  As we have noted elsewhere, this is like giving a well-heeled college applicant with a high SAT score credit for both the high score and the financial resources of his or her parents.

Is It Time for Public Universities to Boycott U.S. News?

U.S. News now seems poised to magnify the magnifying effect described above, especially among leading research institutions that have struggled against inadequate funding and self-interested “reformers” to build strong academic reputations anyway. Why do these institutions make every effort to have the best faculty?  Well, here is what Morse himself has to say.

“Peer assessments are subjective, but they are also important because a diploma from a distinguished college helps graduates get good jobs or gain admission to top-notch graduate programs.”

But the “top-notch graduate programs” that exist at public research institutions can be the very reason, according to Morse, that the universities’ reputations are inflated (if you accept that the magazine’s rankings trump reputation).

“[Underperformance] could mean that the school’s undergraduate academic reputation is benefiting from a much higher reputation held by its various graduate schools. Or, it could mean that the school’s reputation has yet to fully reflect negative trends that are taking place in the underlying academic indicators.”  Especially those indicators that have dollar signs.

If this looks like a tough row to hoe for state universities, it is. Educating tens of thousands of students while maintaining relatively low cost and a strong faculty count for little despite evidence of public excellence. (See, for example,  College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites.)

Maybe it’s time for the public universities to let U.S. News and Forbes do only what they do best: promote leading private colleges and universities that already have pretty much all that they need.

Examples of  “underperforming” universities are below.  The minus sign figure equals the difference between a school’s undergraduate academic reputation in the magazine’s latest rankings (in most cases) and its U.S. News rank. For its new analysis, the magazine is using “peer group” reputation rather than the entire metric for academic reputation used in the 2013 rankings, probably because outside analysts cannot separate out the peer group ranking from the entire metric.  The entire metric uses peer group plus high school counselor assessments of reputation.  Schools in bold below are based on the peer group reputation only, as already published by U.S. News; others are based on the entire metric used in the current magazine reputation rank.  Although the new analysis when it is published will present different figures from some of those not in boldface below, we believe these numbers give you a good idea of what’s coming.

M.I.T (-5)

Stanford (-5)

Johns Hopkins (-7)

Cornell (-9)

UC Berkeley (-13)

Michigan (-12)

Virginia (-6)

North Carolina (-7)

UT Austin (-20)

Wisconsin (-15)

Georgia Tech (-10)

Illinois (-12)

Penn State (-9)

Washington (-9)

Indiana (-39)

Kansas (-39)

Arizona State (-69)

Arizona (-61)

(Note: we have also commented that U.S. News is especially hard on the Arizona schools, despite many examples of excellence at both institutions.)

Illinois Chicago (-53)

Montana (-48)

Colorado (-46)

New Mexico (-45)

Oregon (-45)

Utah (-43)

As is the case with the Forbes rankings, the new U.S. News analysis will bring attention to schools that are not much in the public eye.  Those that have the highest overperformance are these:  Adelphi, Ashland, St. Thomas, St. Mary’s of Minnesota, Azusa Pacific, and one public school, South Carolina State.