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.




Honors News: August 20, 2015–Is Class Rank a Disappearing Metric?

Of great importance to college applicants in some states (Texas, especially) high school class rank is of paramount importance. Texas high school grads ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes (top 7% at UT Austin for 2015) gain automatic acceptance to state schools, with UT Austin capping automatic admissions at 75% of the total freshman class.

According to the National Association of College Admissions C0unselors (NACAC), only 15% of colleges now consider class rank on its own to be of “considerable importance.”

“It’s disappearing as a metric,” says Lee Coffin, a NACAC member and dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts.

NACAC reports that “a student’s grades in college-prep classes is considered the top factor in college admission decisions, followed by the strength of their curriculum, test scores and overall grade-point average, data show.

“The shift away from class rank is related, in part, to the widespread adoption of weighted grades for students who take honors or advanced classes.

“High school officials ‘want students to focus on their own accomplishments without worrying so much where they fall in the pecking order,’ writes reporter Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post. ‘And with the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses — which can boost a student’s grade-point average above a 4.0 — emphasizing rank could push students to overload themselves during their high school years.'”

In the case of UC Berkeley, students who are in the top 9% of statewide high school grads, or in the top 9% of their own high school class, meet only a basic threshold for admission. They must still met the “holistic” requirements of UC Berkeley, which include the following:

    • Your weighted and unweighted grade point average (calculated using 10th and 11th grade UC-approved courses only)
    • Your planned 12th grade courses
    • Your pattern of grades over time
    • The number of college preparatory, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), honors and transferable college courses you have completed
    • Your level of achievement in those courses relative to other UC applicants at your school
    • Your scores on AP or IB exams
    • Your scores on the ACT plus writing or the SAT reasoning test.

These additional requirements go a long way toward ensuring that UC Berkeley students in the top 9% also have other credentials that point toward high academic achievement, especially success with rigorous courses (AP, etc).

Using an automatic percentage as the basis for admission absent additional requirements that evaluate the real academic quality of high school courses is problematic.

One reason is that it encourages some students to transfer to a high school with easier classes and less competition in order to improve class standing.

Another reason is that the test scores of students admitted via automatic admission are somewhat lower; in the case of UT Austin, automatic admits averaged 28 on the ACT, while holistic admits had an average ACT of 30.

The result is a sense of unfairness among students who have completed rigorous coursework at more competitive high schools, made excellent grades, earned high test scores, but not quite made it to the top 10%, or 7% in the case of UT Austin. (UT Austin will admit the top 8% in 2016.)

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.

University Leaders in National Science Foundation Grants

With the national interest so focused on developing talent in the STEM disciplines and the “hard” social sciences (e.g., economics, behavioral sciences), we have been tracking the number of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Grants awarded to universities during the last three years.

NSF graduate research grants are among the most prestigious and valuable awards given to outstanding students.  They also indicate the quality of faculty and facilities and the degree of attention and mentoring that may be available to high-achieving undergraduate researchers.

“Fellows share in the prestige and opportunities that become available when they are selected.  Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 along with a $10,500 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

“NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large.”

From our review, definite university leaders have emerged among both public and private institutions, foremost among them the University of California Berkeley, the overall leader by a large margin in the number of NSF grants during the past three years among all universities in the nation.  Other public university leaders are UT Austin, Washington, Michigan, Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin.

Below is a listing of all universities, public and private, with at least 40 NSF research grant winners the past three years:

UC Berkeley–229



UT Austin–108





Georgia Tech–83










UC Davis–60


UC San Diego–59


Johns Hopkins–54

Arizona State–53





Ohio State–45


North Carolina State–43

Carnegie Mellon–42

North Carolina–41


UC Santa Barbara–40

Which Public Universities Send the Most Grads to Ivies for Postgrad Work?

Based on an analysis of National Science Foundation research grants for 2011 and 2012, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas at Austin lead public universities in the number of students who go on to study science, engineering, and social sciences at Ivy schools and other prestigious private graduate programs.

In a previous post, “Public Universities that Ivy Leaguers Choose for Grad School,” we discussed the leading public choices for Ivy students awarded NSF grants. This post looks at the reverse phenomenon: public university students who received NSF grants to do research at elite private universities.

About 29% of the graduates of public universities who receive NSF grants go on to prestigious private schools for grad work. This is almost exactly the same percentage of Ivy grads who opt for public research universities for their graduate work.

Please bear in mind that many more students from public universities attend elite private schools, even in science and engineering fields, but do so without NSF grants.

UC Berkeley stands out either way you view the analysis: far more grads of elite private schools choose Berkeley for graduate work than they do any other public institution, and Berkeley sends a much higher number of its grads on to the elite private schools for research than do other public universities.

The private universities included are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Chicago, Penn, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern.

Below is a list of the leading public universities who send the most graduates with NSF grants to study at elite private institutions:

UC Berkeley

Harvard (12), Princeton (1), Columbia (4), Stanford (16), MIT (18), Caltech (5), Cornell (6), Brown (1), Duke (4), Johns Hopkins (1), Northwestern (3)


Harvard (4), Princeton (2), Stanford (2), MIT (6), Caltech (2), Chicago (2), Brown (1), Duke (2), Johns Hopkins (1), Northwestern (3)

UT Austin

Harvard (1), Princeton (2), Columbia (1), Stanford (7), MIT (7), Caltech (2), Chicago (1), Cornell (1), Duke (1), Northwestern (1)

Washington (tie with Wisconsin)

Harvard (5), Yale (2), Columbia (1), Stanford (2), MIT (4), Penn (1), Cornell (1), Duke (2), Northwestern (1)

Wisconsin (tie with Washington)

Harvard (4), Princeton (1), Columbia (1), Stanford (1), MIT (4), Caltech (1), Penn (1), Brown (1), Duke (2), Johns Hopkins (2), Northwestern (1)

Arizona (tied with Illinois)

Harvard (2), Yale (1), Columbia (1), Stanford (7), MIT (1), Caltech (1), Cornell (2), Duke (1), Northwestern (1)

Illinois (tied with Arizona)

Yale (2), Columbia (1), Stanford (2), MIT (6), Caltech (2), Chicago (1), Cornell (1), Duke (1), Northwestern (1)

UC San Diego

Harvard (3), Yale (1), Columbia (1), Stanford (4), MIT (3), Caltech (1), Cornell (1), Northwestern (1)

Maryland (tied with UCLA)

Harvard (1), Stanford (1), MIT (2), Caltech (1), Penn (1), Cornell (1), Duke (4), Johns Hopkins (2), Northwestern (1)

UCLA (tied with Maryland)

Harvard (1), Princeton (1), Columbia (1), Stanford (4), MIT (1), Caltech (2), Penn (1), Duke (1), Johns Hopkins (1), Northwestern (1)


Harvard (2), Yale (1), Princeton (1), Columbia (1), Stanford (3), Chicago (1), Penn (1), Duke (1), Johns Hopkins (1)

Georgia Tech

Columbia (1), Stanford (4), MIT (4), Cornell (2)

The following universities are tied, at 10 each:


Columbia (1), Stanford (1) MIT (2), Chicago (1), Penn (1), Duke (1), Johns Hopkins (1), Northwestern (2)


Harvard (1), Yale (1), MIT (1), Caltech (3), Cornell (2), Duke (1), Northwestern (1)

Ohio State

Harvard (1), Yale (1), MIT (3), Cornell (2), Duke (1), Northwestern (2)

The following universities each had four or more NSF recipients who attended one of the private institutions listed above:

UC Santa Barbara (9)
Arizona State (9)
Rutgers (9)
UC Davis (8)
Penn State (7)
Pitt (7)
Clemson (6)
NC State (6)
Stony Brook (6)
Alabama (5)
North Carolina (5)
UC Irvine (5)
Georgia (4)
Indiana (4)
Massachusetts (4)
South Carolina (4)
Texas A&M (4)