The Falling Rankings of Public Universities

On Sunday, The Washington Post ran on its front page a story about college rankings entitled, “Love it or hate it, colleges learn to live with U.S. News guide.”  The article, written by Daniel De Vise, aired many of the familiar—and in my view, valid—complaints about the U.S. News rankings.  They measure student inputs, not college outputs.  They claim to identify the best colleges generally, when the relevant question is: What’s the best college for a particular student. And they provide an incentive for colleges to solicit applications from students who will never be accepted so as to drive up selectivity.

But what I found particularly striking was a graphic accompanying the piece which illustrated a notable slide in the rankings of a number of public flagship universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, and the University of California at Berkeley.  North Carolina fell from 20th in 1991 to 30th in 2011; the University of Virginia from 18th to 25th; and U.C. Berkeley from 13th to 22nd.  Overall, writes De Vise, “Since 1991, each of the five public institutions ranked highest on the U.S. News list has slipped at least seven places.”

The weighing of financial resources (10 percent of the total score) may help explain the decline.  As a new report from the University of Southern California and the Education Conservancy notes, public universities have sustained repeated cuts in funding to the point where a number of institutions have “found themselves crossing a sad threshold in which revenue collected from student tuition exceeds the state’s total financial contribution toward students’ education.”  At one public flagship university the report cites, the state’s per student support declined from $14,000 annually in the 1990s to $5,000 annually in more recent years (in constant dollars).

One answer to the decline in U.S. News rankings among public universities is to dismiss the rankings as flawed or to ignore them.  “I never quote U.S. News at all, ever,” Berkeley’s chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau told De Vise.  Another answer is to refuse to participate in the reputational survey upon which U.S. News relies for 22.5 percent of the total score.  The USC and Education Conservancy report urges colleges to “decline to participate in perception-based rankings of higher education institutions. Nothing short of widespread collective action can break the throttle grip that market-driven external entities exert on the practices of universities and colleges.”

But as De Vise notes, the power of the U.S. News rankings appears undiminished, and simply ignoring them seems problematic.  To the extent that students rely upon the rankings—and to the extent that peers matter to the quality of one’s education—the ranking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby stronger students avoid lower-ranking institutions, thereby making them actually worse.  That is the danger.

But might the rankings also present an opportunity for public institutions? Shouldn’t UVa, in its plea to the Virginia state legislature for funding, cite the fact that past cuts have caused the flagship to decline from 18 to 25?  Shouldn’t a fall in rankings be used as an instrument and argument to forestall further cuts?

If I had my druthers, university leaders would put much more emphasis on the rankings of Washington Monthly magazine, which scores institutions on the degree to which they promote valuable societal goals like social mobility, public service, and research.  But until that happens, I do hope that public institutions will use their declines in U.S. News rankings as a cudgel against further cuts to public-sector universities, which continue to educate about three-quarters of American college students.

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