When U.S. News & World Report released its 2017 National Universities Rankings, Rice University found itself four spots higher than the year before, rising from tied for No. 19 to tied for No. 15 with Cornell University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Notre Dame. Two factors led to Rice’s increase in the rankings: changes in the ranking methodology by U.S. News, in addition to institutional changes made by Rice.
U.S. News creates its ranking by calculating an overall score for each university based on multiple subscores in different weighted categories.
An article written by U.S. News analysts identified two main changes in the updated 2017 rankings. First, colleges were reclassified based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. This did not affect Rice, however, because Rice has stayed classified as a national university. The second change was in the class size component of the Faculty Resources ranking factor, which is weighted as 20 percent of a university’s overall score.
Before this year, the ratings included class size as two separate components: Classes with fewer than 20 students encompassed 30 percent of the faculty resources score and classes with more than 50 students were 10 percent. This year, U.S. News combined these two components of class size into one overall class size index measure, which comprises 40 percent of the faculty resources score. “This indicator is a more nuanced factor than in the past,” the website states.
According to data from the Office of the Registrar, 68.8 percent of Rice classes contain less than 20 students, and only 7.3 percent of classes enroll more than 50 students. As defined by U.S. News, a class is an organized course taken for credit, meeting at specific times in a classroom or similar setting. This percentage does not include discussions, labs, independent studies or research done for credit, and excludes students auditing classes from total enrollment.
Additionally, institutional changes were a factor in Rice’s rise in the rankings, according to Associate Vice Provost Shiva Jaganathan and Vice President for Finance Kathy Collins. Jaganathan and Collins said initiatives included targeted efforts to increase alumni donations, improved freshman retention and six-year graduation rates that they attributed to Student Success Initiatives and a reduction in admissions rate due to an increasing applicant pool.
Rice has historically always ranked very well, according to U.S. News’ chief data strategist Robert Morse.
“Rice’s strongest ranking factors compared to other schools in its National Universities ranking category are its admissions data, such as SAT/ACT and class standing, faculty resources and alumni giving,” Morse said.
However, the utility of rankings has been a matter of debate both nationally and at Rice.
Wiess College sophomore Walker Grimes said he believes college rankings are not helpful in deciding what university to attend.
“I’m all about finding the right personal fit,” Grimes said. “What’s really good for one person might make someone else extremely unhappy. This difference isn’t reflected in the college rankings at all. While rankings shouldn’t be completely ignored, they are best used to examine larger trends which can help a student decide what actually is the best fit.”
While some believe college rankings are meaningless, the existence of the rankings themselves may perpetuate their own importance: Academic reputation encompasses 22.5 percent of the score assigned to a university through U.S. News’ methodology. This factor is based off the opinions of peer university officials and high school counselors. According to David Daniels, a Duncan College senior, this portion of the methodology is flawed.
“[Academic reputation is] a good thing to consider,” Daniels said. “But it may be too high because the problem is that, of course, the colleges that have always been the best or always have the biggest names are going to come up the most.”
McMurtry College sophomore Saiesh Kalva said diversity is an important factor in college choice, but it is not included in the US News ranking.
“Diversity brings new perspectives and enhances the experience at Rice, or any campus, because it gives people the opportunity to think in ways they may never have before,” Kalva said.
Daniels also said he feels diversity is central and unique to a college experience, and should be included in the college ranking methodology.
“I’d say that diversity was one of the biggest factors for me choosing Rice as opposed to some of the other similarly ranked schools,” Daniels said. “It’s something that you’re not going to experience really until college and even maybe after, but it’s very useful to gain perspective from students all over the world.”
For Anna Seballos, a Jones College freshman, college rankings do not matter much.
“When I was choosing from the schools that I was admitted to, there were so many other factors that affected my decision that the rankings didn’t really affect my decision either,” Seballos said.
Seballos said rankings should not factor into a high school senior’s college decision.
“I feel like you can’t write convincing college essays if you want to go to a school only because it’s ranked really highly or for the prestige, so rankings were never a big factor of my decision of where to apply,” Seballos said.
For others, rankings served as a starting point of research.
“Once I got a baseline that these are all good schools I might have a chance of going to then, I just took it completely sideways, ignored the rankings, and looked at which school I would be the happiest or would fit my personality,” Daniels.
Chris Munoz, the vice president of enrollment from the Office of Admissions, said the rankings are useful because they help increase applications to Rice.
“It is flattering and marginally helpful when any publication gives Rice a positive ranking,” Munoz said. “Most certainly, U.S. News is the most influential.”
Senior Director of News and Media Relations B.J. Almond said while rankings are something to consider, there are other more important factors in deciding where to attend college.
“When prospective students and others are pondering their academic goals and desired educational experience, college rankings might be helpful, but the rankings should be only one of many criteria that they investigate before making a decision,” Almond said.