WashU drops to No. 24 in U.S. News rankings following changed formula
Washington University ranked No. 24 in the annual Best National University Rankings list by U.S. News & World Report, nine spots lower than last year’s No. 15 ranking. The report was published on Sunday evening.
The change follows an adjustment to U.S. News’ methodology that was announced in May. The new ranking methodology places increased weight on a university’s “success in graduating students from different backgrounds” and removes alumni giving, faculty with a terminal degree, class size, and high school standing as ranking factors.
Several of the University’s peer institutions also experienced movement in rankings, including the University of Chicago, which dropped from No. 6 to No. 12, and Dartmouth College, which dropped from No.12 to No. 18. Some large public schools moved ahead of the University in the new rankings, including the University of California, Los Angeles and The University of California, Berkeley — both of which are now tied for No. 15, up from No. 20.
“The large public schools that tended to benefit the most from the change are incredible institutions who have been doing the work of socioeconomic mobility for decades, and I’m honestly happy to see them recognized for that work — it’s pushing us to really center that as core,” Jennifer Smith, Vice Provost for Educational Initiatives, said.
In a statement to Student Life, Provost Beverly Wendland wrote that U.S. News uses data from as far back as 2011 from which to base their rankings — though she said that the reasons for the utilization of old data are unclear.
Since 2011, Washington University’s efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity on-campus include Pell-grant initiatives, a need-blind admissions policy, and their most recent “no loan” policy. Smith said that the change in the U.S. News rankings shows a legacy of the University having moved late in diversifying its student body.
“We still expect this to be a tailwind that helps us, but everybody is trying to do better on this,” she said. “We will benefit from [the work] in the rankings as years go on.”
Wendland also said that current efforts will likely show up in rankings years into the future.
“What matters today is that, about 10 years ago, our previous administration decided to make a serious commitment to increasing socioeconomic diversity, and we have been working hard at it ever since,” Wendland wrote. “This progress is not reflected in this year’s U.S. News ranking, and we look forward to seeing improvement in this metric in future years, when the data catch up with the ranking.”
Smith said that regardless, rankings are still arbitrary, as seen by how drastically they can change when different factors of an institution are given different weights.
She guesses that U.S. News moved toward a methodology that is reliant on public information in order to avoid universities providing outdated or incorrect information. Last year, Columbia University’s inflation of statistics made national news.
Subjectivity in ranking methodologies has long been subject to criticism, as seen by the withdrawal of Yale and Harvard Law School from the U.S. News rankings last year.
Earlier this year, alongside several other top-ranked medical schools, Washington University’s School of Medicine also pulled out of the U.S. News rankings, stating that the rankings are too easily manipulated and serve as a “flimsy scaffolding upon which to base our pride and satisfaction.”
According to a report summarized by Inside Higher Ed, students might not rely heavily on rankings when choosing a school. Only about 25% of surveyed students reported that they paid attention to any one particular ranking source.
“Our students have wildly variable experiences, and what makes it good for each of our students can be really different,” Smith said. “So how do you reduce that to a couple of numbers?”
Wendland said that, looking forward, it is difficult to say how the University’s drop in rankings will affect prospective-student pools.
“I don’t think there will ever be a perfect ranking, but this seems to be a step in the right direction, at least in terms of measuring something that actually matters,” she wrote.
For first-year Rohan Reddy, rankings were not a huge factor in his decision to come to the University — rather, he was drawn in by the cooperative environment.
“It’s nice to have rankings to see if one college is better than other in general, but I don’t think rankings should be taken too seriously, because it depends on what the best college for you should be,” Reddy said.
Senior Mary Falstin echoed that rankings did not affect her decision, saying that she chose to come to the University because it was where she felt most supported as a first-generation, low-income student.
However, there are students to whom the U.S News list played a large role in their college-decision process.
Junior Brenna Loftus said, “My mindset was just ‘Go to the best school you can get into,’ and rankings definitely played a part in that.”
Junior Illiana Wong shared that it was others’ opinions that played a significant factor in her commitment to the University.
“[Rankings] certainly had some effect with my parents — they obviously want me to go to a good school,” Wong said. “There’s that image that elite schools put on students, and also an expectation, [which] students who go to more elite schools get forced under, so there’s a lot of pressure.”
Ultimately, the University plans to continue emphasizing student outcomes and upward socioeconomic mobility, Smith said.
“All we have to do to get better is [to] keep admitting first-gen, limited-income students and graduate all of our students the best we can,” Smith said. “Things that we would need to do to improve within the rankings are things [that] we are doing anyway — and believe in doing.”
The fall in rankings has raised concerns among students that the University’s quality of educational services has decreased; however, Wendland wrote that this is not the case.
“We haven’t changed; the U.S. News ranking has. WashU remains as strong as ever, and we all should be proud of this world-class institution,” Wendland wrote.
Additional reporting contributed by Shaza Ali.