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December 04, 2012 3:36 PM Perception and Reality in College Rankings

By Daniel Luzer

This is interesting. U.S. News & World Report, which annually publishes the country’s major college rankings guide, has issued a piece about college rankings: which colleges are under or over performing.

As Robert Morse, director of data research for the publication,
explains:

U.S. News is publishing a first-ever analysis of colleges in our National Universities ranking category that are overperforming or underperforming their undergraduate academic reputations in terms of their overall Best Colleges 2013 rankings. This concept measures the degree to which a university’s overall position in the rankings exceeds or falls short of its undergraduate academic reputation rank.

Undergraduate academic rankings, how people feel about the quality of a college or university, make up 15 percent of the publication’s overall ranking. What the new scale does is compare that one measure to the U.S. News overall rank.

For many universities, of course, undergraduate reputation rank and overall rank are pretty much the same. A school, say, has a middling undergraduate academic reputation and is ultimately, adding more objective measures, ranked as a middling school.

For certain universities, however, there’s a disconnect. The school might have a poor undergraduate reputation but the other measures indicate that the school performs pretty well. The reverse may also be true for some schools; maybe it has a better academic reputation than it actually performs using other measures.

What does this mean? Well, it’s hard to tell. As Morse puts it,

If a school’s academic reputation ranking is better than its overall ranking, it means that the school’s performance in the key academic indicators used by U.S. News is not keeping pace with its academic reputation. This 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.

So, in short, it could mean two things. Since undergraduate academic reputation is (basically) a reflection of actual quality, a disconnect means either the school is rapidly changing, and the reputation hasn’t caught up with the improvements (or declines) or the academic reputation simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the school’s quality.

Over the long term, what might be interesting to see would be changes. Over time does an improvement in objective measure ultimately lead to an improvement in reputation? How much, and how rapidly, does undergraduate reputation change as a result of changes in objective measures? How much can a college change in academic reputation, and how long does it take?

Overperforming schools in the national universities category, meaning their academic peer assessment rank is higher than their U.S. News rank, include

1. Adelphi University
2. Ashland University
2. University of St. Thomas (Minnesota)
3. Stevens Institute of Technology
4. St. Mary’s University of Minnesota

Underperforming schools meaning their their U.S. News rank is higher than their academic peer assessment rank, include several big names in American colleges:

1. Arizona State University
2. University of Arizona
3. University of Illinois—Chicago
4. Virginia Commonwealth University
5. University of Montana

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer