Rutgers suffered an embarrassing football defeat this past weekend at the hands and feet of the Kansas Jayhawks. But when it comes to the 2019 US News college rankings, there is much for the Rutgers community to cheer for. Their university has moved up to 56th among National Research Universities, and into the Top 20 (tied for 17th with Ohio State and Purdue) among those that are public. Rutgers leaped ahead of Penn State-University Park, the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Pittsburgh to claim this spot.

US News  released their latest college rankings using a new methodology. Many schools “moved up” in these rankings, others “moved down,” although most did not make dramatic changes in the ways that they deliver a college education.  The new rankings placed  less weight on “expert advice” based on surveys of college deans and senior administrators as well as high school guidance counselors, less weight on student high school credentials (grades, standardized test scores) and no weight on a college’s acceptance rate. They placed more weight on Outcomes, including enhancing social mobility for economically disadvantaged students who received the Federal Pell Grant, graduation rates and retention rates. This proves a point that I’ve made in a past post: all college rankings are based on what you decide to rank. 

I’m happy for the folks who work for Rutgers. No doubt many alumni will burst with pride to say their alma mater is the fifth-best academic university in the Big Ten—after Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin—even though it has the worst football and men’s basketball programs in the conference. A “good state university” is one that does well at retaining and graduating the students that it attracts to campus. Many of those students might have gained admission to extremely selective private colleges, others might have had their state university as their first-choice school, and were extremely happy to get in. Rutgers has many students who fit in either group. 

But was the move up really earned?

In some cases, its fair to say yes, and maybe wonder why Rutgers doesn’t rank higher.

I subscribe to US News College Compass, the online guide, so I looked at the rankings more closely  The state schools that ranked ahead of Rutgers did perform better or equally at retaining and graduating their students , except for three: Georgia Tech (where many students stay five years to do co-op or pursue a master’s degree), UC-Davis and UC-San Diego. I went to another site, College Results Online as well as each college’s Common Data Set page, to compare Rutgers and the two California schools based on a better set of criteria. I wanted to see how each school performed at retaining and graduating a class that entered in the same year, 2011-12.

UC-San Diego

  • 4-year Graduation Rate, Class entering in 2011-12: 58.9%
  • Freshman Retention, Class entering in 2011-12: 95%
  • Median SAT, Class entering in 2011-12: 1265
  • Acceptance Rate, Class entering in 2011-12: 36.2%
  • Percentage of Freshmen Awarded Need-Based Scholarships and Grants, Class entering in 2011-12: 65.1%

UC-Davis

  • 4-year Graduation Rate, class entering in 2011-12: 54.9%
  • Freshman Retention, Class entering in 2011-12: 93%
  • Median SAT, Class entering in 2011-12: 1195
  • Acceptance Rate, Class entering in 2011-12: 47.4%
  • Percentage of Freshmen Awarded Need-Based Scholarships and Grants, Class entering in 2011-12: 65.8%

Rutgers-New Brunswick 

  • 4-year Graduation Rate, Class entering in 2011-12: 59.2%
  • Freshman Retention, Class entering in 2011-12: 93%
  • Median SAT, Class entering in 2011-12: 1190
  • Acceptance Rate, Class entering in 2011-12: 59.1%
  • Percentage of Freshmen Awarded Need-Based Scholarships and Grants, Class entering in 2011-12: NA, the closest percentage was for the class that entered in 2012-13, and it was 38.4%

UC-San Diego welcomed a statistically better class than Rutgers in 2011-12, and the school was more capable of supporting the neediest students with scholarships and grants. UC-Davis welcomed a statistically similar class, but it too was more capable of assisting its neediest students. Both of these schools ranked higher than Rutgers back then, possibly because they had more selective admissions, as they still do today.

If the ability to financially assist the neediest students, especially when they represent a large majority of a freshman class, is taken into account along with the ability of the school to retain and graduate them, then maybe these two California schools have probably earned the higher ranking for 2018-19–based on US News’ methodology. California is at the national forefront when it comes to its need-based grant programs, especially the UC system’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which started in 2009-10.  It is fair to award a state university extra points because their state made the aid available. 

At the same time, Rutgers did better at graduating their students, despite more limited resources for aid within the university and the State of New Jersey. That says a lot for the determination of the students and Rutgers’ determination to help them academically and to prepare for  life after college. They also have a much larger alumni base to help them along, unless they hope to move to California. 

Need help in comparing colleges? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com, or call me at 609-406-0062 

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