NMU was recently ranked 76th in the U.S. News’ Regional Universities Rankings, sandwiched between Minnesota State University-Mankato at 75th and six universities, including Eastern Michigan, tied for the 77th place.
The allure of being ranked among the top universities in the country is certainly high — such rankings provide a line from which prospective college students can begin their search.
But the 76th spot in the U.S. News’ rankings of Midwest Regional Universities isn’t ‘particularly high,’ nor is it vastly different from NMU’s position in previous years, according to NMU marketing director Anne Stark.
“Over the last three or four years, we really haven’t had any change,” she said. “[We were] 77th last year and the year before that we were in a six-way tie for number 72.”
Yet Stark has a partially critical perspective that many college administrators share on the topic of national college rankings — which are done by U.S. News and other organizations to help prospective students and their parents in making an ultimate college decision — in that she is questionable about what they truly mean for universities like NMU.
“I don’t want to hang our hat on thinking rankings like this are outrageously important,” Stark said. “If you look at the schools at the top, they are strong in the factors (U.S. News) is ranking on and we’re not, and I don’t know if that makes a good university experience or not. I don’t know.”
The top spots in rankings done by U.S. News are given to universities that are strong in various categories that are seen as crucial indicators of a college’s overall value to prospective students and their parents. According to usnews.com, these categories include assessments done by administrators at peer universities, retention rates of students (particularly freshmen), faculty resources, financial resources and graduation rate performance, among others.
These rank indicators, however, do not wholly suggest that a particular school is a suitable fit for a student, a fact that U.S. News itself disclaims in the first paragraph on the ‘methodology’ section of their website.
“The host of intangibles that make up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points,” it reads. “But for families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money, the U.S. News’ Best College rankings provide an excellent starting point for the search.”
Which is the undisputed purpose of such rankings — to serve as a broad starting point for families in what Stark described as “probably the biggest choice you will make in your life,” based on the fact that there are over 3,900 colleges and universities in the country.
According to Provost Paul Lang, the U.S. News rankings are a valuable asset to students and parents who are beginning the college search process, and was not critical of the ultimate purpose of such lists.
“The issue of ranking is very complicated,” Lang said. “I see some inherent value in having a good ranking position. Some institutions spend a whole lot of money in factoring in the different ranking criteria.”
Lang said many universities have positions on campus that work to better the data used in the ranking systems of organizations like U.S. News, but that NMU is not one of them.
“I think that because you’re ranked high does not necessarily mean you are a better institution,” he said. “What it really might mean is that you are improving your data at your institution to increase your rankings with those organizations.
“But I don’t want to be super negative in regards to rankings — I think they have value, some students and parents pay a lot of attention to them, and if it’s important to students and their parents it should be important to us as well.”
Stark agreed, however, that rankings are subjective depending on the university, and added that NMU has some disadvantages in trying for a high ranking, most notably the fact that it is a right-to-try school, which, while jeopardizing the potential for high scores in student selectivity, also provides opportunities for students who need a second chance out of high school. NMU’s current student selectivity rate is 67.8 percent.
“I think the ‘right to try [policy]’ is a generous second chance for a lot of students,” Stark said. “So we could always cut the size of our freshman class to rank higher in selectivity, but at what price?”
The difficulty of funding, financial resources and faculty resources are also consistent barriers NMU must hurdle in order to attain higher rankings.
“Faculty resources are really hard because we can’t just keep throwing money into them — the university doesn’t have it,” Stark said. “The state of Michigan has been giving less and less to the university so we’ve had to raise tuition, and we’ve been very conscientious about raising tuition because it’s hard on our families and our students.”
Here again, the familiar criticism of college rankings persists: does the ranking of faculty resources reflect the actual effectiveness of university professors? Or, as Stark said, does a well-paid faculty necessarily mean a passionate, driven and genuinely interested faculty?
“I think that people — faculty, students and staff — come to Northern not because they’re just pulling in buckets of money,” she said. “They come here because they fit in, because you can find something of value here.
“The thing about Northern is people genuinely care about the success of students and will go out of their way to make it happen. And I don’t say that doesn’t happen on other campuses. But how do you measure that on a survey? There’s no way.”
Creighton University took first in the U.S. News rankings.