Public universities are falling behind their private counterparts, according to the popular but controversial ranking system by U.S. News & World Report. MU was ranked No. 88 on the latest list of “Top National Universities.”
The University of California at Berkeley was the highest-ranked public institution, coming in at No. 21.
The U.S. News and World Report list has been criticized for using a ranking methodology that favors wealthy and selective private schools over less wealthy and more inclusive public schools. A May article in the Chronicle of Higher Education states that an analysis of U.S. News data from the past 24 years found “the rankings game does not provide a level playing field for all contestants. The magazine’s criteria seem to overwhelmingly favor private institutions.” The analysis also found that “every college that had significantly improved its rank” over the past 24 years was private.
The editor of U.S. News, Brian Kelly, has defended the magazine’s system of ranking, saying that it is the magazine’s “best judgement of what is important.”
MU Provost Brian Foster said such lists rely heavily on what goes into the university, such as money, and incoming freshmen class statistics, rather than what comes out of the university, such as research and the quality of the education students receive.
“If the school chooses the very top achieving students, what would you expect from those students?” he said. He explained that the prestigious schools recruit students with the highest grades and the best test scores, which only adds to their reputation as high-ranking schools.
Foster said one of his main concerns with such ranking methodologies is their focus on selectivity. Public schools generally have higher acceptance rates than private schools; MU accepts 89 percent of its applicants. Princeton University, which topped the list, had an acceptance rate of only 11 percent.
“Part of (a public university’s) mission is to serve the public,” Foster said. He said the reason MU’s acceptance rate is so high is that the requirements for admission are plainly stated. If a student doesn’t meet the requirements, they usually don’t apply.
But he acknowledged that it would be nice for MU to rise in the ranking if it weren’t at the cost of becoming more restrictive in admissions.
“I believe in our access,” he said.
MU is a member of the American Association of Universities, a group of only 62 of the nation’s research institutions. Roughly half of the group is made up of public universities. The AAU does not accept applications for membership, but instead invites only one or two schools to join each year. The criteria that the AAU looks for in potential members is much broader than that of the U.S. News & World Report ranking and includes the amount of research funding, effectiveness of research and even the size of a university’s library.
Although national private universities dominate U.S. News & World Report’s top ranks, Columbia’s private institutions did not fare as well.
Stephens College was not placed in any of the U.S. News & World Report lists. Columbia College, which is also private, was ranked No. 35 on the list of comprehensive colleges in the Midwest.
Amy Gipson, vice president of marketing and public relations at Stephens College, said there is a financial bias to the ranking methodology.
“Small schools with large endowments tend to rise to the top of these surveys,” Gipson wrote in an e-mail. “They have the financial resources to provide bigger and better scholarships to recruit top students, to recruit and retain faculty and provide them with higher salaries, and to equip their facilities with state-of-the-art features.”
Gipson said the magazine classified Stephens College incorrectly, and that’s why it was left out.
“Stephens is listed in a national liberal arts tier, which is an inappropriate category for us,” she wrote. “We offer programs in pre-professional fields and the performing arts, with a ‘grounding’ in the liberal arts, but we are not primarily a liberal arts institution as some of the other schools in this category are.”
Although Stephens isn’t mentioned in U.S. News & World Report, it has been ranked sixth in the “Best College Theatre” student survey in the Princeton Review.