Don Sprowl
Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

_MG_3218The U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of colleges and universities is out. Once we satisfy our natural curiosity to see how we came out we are confronted with the deeper question of whether or not we should care about how we came out.  I will present highlights of the former and then muse a bit on the latter.

This year we are tied for 26th place among Masters universities of the Midwest along with Grand Valley State, Webster, and the University of Indianapolis.  In addition, we are ranked number 7 on their “Great Schools, Great Prices” list, tied for 11th on their “Best Colleges for Veterans” list, and are included on their “A+ Schools for B Students” list.

Whether we should care about our placement in the U.S. News rankings depends on how well the U.S. News rankings formula matches our institutional values – what could be greater folly than abandoning our institutional identity and mission in pursuit of the approval of U.S. News and World Report.  The details of the U.S. News formula are proprietary, but the basic parameters are simple enough.  The U.S. News rankings favor resources, selectivity, and reputation.  Rich, highly-selective institutions that have a reputation for academic quality fare well.  Princeton and Harvard vie each year for the trophy in the National Universities category and schools like Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and Wellesley are perennially at the top of the National Liberal Arts Colleges group.  We wouldn’t mind being rich and we hope to build a reputation for academic quality, but we do not aspire to be highly selective.  Rather our mission has always driven us to open the doors of opportunity to every student to whom we might minister.  Thus, if we climb too high in the rankings it is probably a good indication that we have drifted from who we mean to be.

The Midwest Regional Universities category we are placed in, which includes about 150 schools, is led by ten or twelve schools that score notably higher than the rest.  The next twenty or so schools score close to each other so a small change in institutional numbers can produce a change in ranking.   In recent years we have climbed from the mid-30s to an all-time high of tied for 17th last year.  With little change in institutional character to point to, my guess is that external exposure through things like the National Conversations and the fruit of the Provost’s scholarship initiative that President Wright engineered a few years ago are slowly raising our exposure and reputation.  The drop to 26th this year is due largely to a correction in our reporting of admission rates.  If we attend well to our mission, this mid-teens to mid-20s place in the rankings feels about right.

The game of college rankings is changing in interesting ways.  U.S. News publishes their rankings for one reason – to sell magazines and college guide books.  Their success at making money in this way has not gone unnoticed and now every magazine and their grandmother are publishing college rankings.  The resulting glut of rankings, all using different methods and all producing different lists, has a muting effect on the impact of the rankings.  When U.S. News was the only game in town their rankings had an aura of authority and therefore validity.  With a multiplicity of conflicting rankings it is easier to realize that each ranking has meaning only in the context of what they value in their calculations.  Even in the context of the formulas, it is reasonable to ask whether a college ranking can have real meaning.  IWU, Grand Valley State, Webster, and the University of Indianapolis are all universities in the Midwest, but our missions and identities are profoundly different.  Is there really a way to ask which is the better school that would give a meaningful answer in an overall sense?  All of this muddling helps the rankings find their proper, minimal place in the landscape of higher education.

One day each year I am curious to see how U.S. News has placed us in their list.  The other 364 days I treasure the mission we have been given at IWU and pursue that without further thought that this year we are tied for 26th.