Northwestern officials split on stagnant U.S. News & World Report ranking

Cat Zakrzewski, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern’s fifth straight year as the 12th best college in the nation garnered mixed reviews from University officials Wednesday — and has some questioning the validity of the rankings.

Though one spokesman praised NU’s staying power, a McCormick administrator dismissed the ratings as a “popularity contest.”

U.S. News & World Report released its annual rankings of American colleges and universities Wednesday. NU has placed 12th since the report’s 2009 edition.

NU spokesman Bob Rowley called the consistent ranking encouraging.

“It’s very good to be this high in the rankings when you look at how many colleges and universities there are,” Rowley said.

The rankings raise NU’s visibility and show the school has a prestigious reputation among high school guidance counselors, he added.

NU was ranked 17th in surveys from guidance counselors, tied with California Institute of Technology, Rice University, University of California-Berkeley and the University of Chicago, according to U.S. News & World Report. The magazine says these counselor ratings account for 7.5 percent of a school’s overall score.

In another ranking released Wednesday, NU placed 13th for engineering schools offering doctorates as their highest degree.

The list of top engineering schools is partially based on assessments from deans of peer institutions and corporate recruiters who previously hired graduates from ranked engineering programs, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Still, McCormick associate dean Stephen Carr said the rankings do not accurately reflect the success of graduates.

“(The rankings) are much more of a popularity contest than they are a qualitative assessment of the quality of education that students are receiving at a school,” he said.

Schools that “crank out the largest number of graduates” are likely to be ranked higher because those surveyed tend to score their alma maters highly, Carr explained. He said NU is underrepresented in the population that casts votes.

But McCormick isn’t trying to claw its way to the top. Although some schools send surveyors weekly newsletters touting their programs, Carr said McCormick does not use such “crass” and “aggressive” tactics. Instead, McCormick maintains its website and updates alumni on the school’s accomplishments, Carr said, noting national rankings are a secondary concern.

“Our focus is on the education and success of our graduates first and foremost,” he said.

For incoming McCormick freshman Ritij Goel, rankings mattered when filling out college applications. Once his acceptance letters were in, however, Goel chose NU over the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Carnergie Mellon University — both with engineering programs ranked higher by U.S. News & World Report.

“The main thing was how the school fit in terms of overall feel,” Goel said. “I think that the rankings should not be the only thing students look at.”

NU is hoping prospective students will do just that. As a whole, NU does not use the U.S. News & World Report numbers for promotional purposes, Rowley said. Despite a 2010 report in the Chicago Tribune that the University asked for increased undergraduate donations to “radically improve” NU’s ranking, Rowley said he was unaware of any such efforts.

Regardless of rankings, Rowley said the school’s academic reputation has been confirmed by the record number of students who applied this year: almost 32,000 applications for the Class of 2016.