Understanding the Rankings

Editor’s note: Dr. Michael Cogan, director of institutional research and analysis at St. Thomas, submitted this guest blog to The Scroll.

The St. Thomas community was recently informed that our university was ranked 124th in the National Universities category by U.S. News & World Report. Since then, I have heard many comments attempting to make meaning of this ranking. For the most part, the comments have been focused on opinions that St. Thomas does not actively attempt to improve rankings. Sure, most of us would rather be ranked No. 124 instead of No. 200, but the clear message I have heard is that rankings do not drive the institution’s decision-making process. I would argue this is a good thing.

So the obvious question for St. Thomas is, “How seriously should we view these rankings?” In order to answer this question, we must first identify the information that comprises these rankings. In summary, U.S. News considers measures such as retention and graduation rates, class sizes, ACT scores, admission rates and alumni giving rates when assigning each institution’s rank. Of course, these measures are very important to St. Thomas, and the university has dedicated a significant amount of personnel and financial resources to address these very measures.

For example, who among us strives to reduce our graduation rate? To the contrary, many people on campus work to increase this rate. In fact, the past two years have seen four-year graduation rates in the 60 percent range after several years in the 55 percent range. I am not aware of anyone on campus who would argue this is a bad thing. As an unintended consequence, this increase has the potential to affect our U.S. News ranking in a positive way. Of course, it is worth repeating that this effort was not undertaken to climb in the rankings but because graduation is a positive outcome for our students, the institution and the region.

Another measure considered by U.S. News is the “perceived” academic reputation score of St. Thomas.  This score accounts for nearly 25 percent of the U.S. News rank. Due to our Carnegie classification as a national university, our academic reputation score is decided by individuals at institutions such as the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin and University of Notre Dame. As a result, that score suffers because we are a regional institution with limited national exposure. How could anyone from Stanford University be able to determine the academic reputation of St. Thomas in a meaningful way?

In closing, I would posit that understanding the measures that comprise the various external rankings is an important process as long as we have a clear understanding of what these measures mean to us. Clearly, the current St. Thomas undergraduate model works. To make dramatic changes to the way we approach teaching and facilitate learning at St. Thomas would be a fool’s errand, and I am thankful that the St. Thomas administration clearly understands this issue.