U.S.News Rankings Pose Serious Challenge to DU

Let’s face it, rankings are often arbitrary – especially when it comes to colleges and universities. However, the rankings game plays a major role in college selection as students favor high ranking universities as well as an outstanding campus experience. Equally important, parents are willing to pay a ‘premium’ for a school like DU – a school which provides a great atmosphere and has a ‘Top 100’ designation. The recent dip in DU’s rankings, 9 places, from U.S. News and World Report from 87th to 96th is cause for concern.

U.S. News gathers data from and about each school in up to 16 areas related to academic excellence. Each indicator is assigned a weight (expressed as a percentage) based on U.S. News’ judgments about which measures of quality matter most.

U.S. News  did change their scoring metrics by adding more weight to  “student outcomes” from 30 percent to 35 percent – the most weight given to any category. While University officials indicated this factor as a major reason for the decline, Denver must be falling short on a relative basis versus their peers. More than one-third of a school’s rank comes from “student outcomes” – its success at retaining and graduating students within 150 percent of normal time (six years). Says U.S. News, “It receives the highest weight in our rankings because degree completion is necessary to receive the full benefits of undergraduate study from employers and graduate schools.” While the weight may explain some of the change, there is no doubt that further erosion in DU’s ratings could push Denver out of the Top 100 Universities. Fair or not, that would be a disaster – both academic reputation and financially for DU, a University that depends 70% on student tuition.

According to US News DU is more expensive than other private institutions, with tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 school year at $48,669 and room and board at $12,612, according to U.S. News data. However, the average financial aid package for the 2016 school year was $30,824. And a further decline under 100 is certain to impact the quality of students who matriculate to the University of Denver and the premium tuition DU can demand.

And a fall to a middling ranking, below 100, is sure to impact the quality and number of potential applicants to the University of Denver. Denver was a tepid #173 in engineering for undergraduates while Daniels School of Business for graduate studies checked in at #92. Still, add the explosive front range population growth and business expansion in Denver, this should be an ideal time for Denver to move-up – not fall backwards.

Again, it may be convenient to challenge the methodology. For example, Denver ranked #58 on ‘value’. But, will Denver’s perceived ‘value’ drop with falling national rankings? And, all universities are subject to the same U.S. News measures – so it is hard to argue that DU is faring well on a relative basis against other high performing peers.

And schools like Clarkson, Drexel and RIT, which finished just outside the ‘Top 100″, are sure to be battling to make it into the Top 100 next go around.

DU’s current University administration must look in the mirror to see if their current strategies and priorities are detracting from the University’s reputation and negatively impacting the selection, development and retention of students. And, most importantly, is the curriculum geared to skill building and eventual career readiness.

A further decline could be catastrophic to the progress DU has made over the last thirty years. The Chancellor and her team must take a serious look at their current course and be prepared to make adjustments.

16 thoughts on “U.S.News Rankings Pose Serious Challenge to DU”

  1. My hunch is we graduate the # of students we expect each year, but many are transfers, so their success is not measured. DU is unique in that it accepts many students who feel they don’t really need a degree because of family connections. They will get the same job with or without a degree. You may not like me saying that, but it’s a fact. When I attended DU 10%-20% of the frosh never went to class; it was a free season of skiing to them and a expensive ski vacation paid by their parents. They flunk out and are replaced by transfers. DU accepts smart kids. It’s hard to flunk out of DU. It’s tough to pinpoint those applicants who want to get a degree. The below 100 Ranking of RIT surprises me. I believe their admission standards are high. (hockey players excluded)

  2. Good Article.

    All rankings are moved by money. DU’s 70% tuition dependence puts DU in a hole that private schools with larger endowments don’t have to deal with, and that makes it very hard for DU to do everything it would like to do to improve its rankings. DU can’t get much bigger. Once the endowment can get up to a $1 Billion or so from the $700 million+ it is today, that would really help. But before that happens, there are some steps DU can take in order to move up in the USNWR rankings:

    1) Increase Admission Selectivity: Simply put, DU is at the bottom of the “elite pool” of schools. Top schools don’t take more than 50% of applicants, and the very best schools accept only 10% or less. DU has shuttled between 53% and 75% acceptance rates in recent years because it must do so in order to order to fill its classes. While the average DU student has an impressive 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT/28 ACT, those kind of students have many choices of top schools, and they have a lot of “merit” aid (discounts) thrown at them by schools that are higher on the admission food chain. Only a small percentage of DU’s accepted students students actually matriculate here, so the key to rising in selectivity rankings means that the funnel at the top of the applicant pool needs to be larger. I think DU needs to grow from about 20,000 applicants to 30,000 in order to reject more students to get that acceptance rate below 50%. That means DU needs to be more nationally known and attractive, requiring DU to invest in areas that increase national awareness – such as sports, and an increased presence on both coasts, where the more affluent students families are. DU needs more “Full-Pay” students in order to offset the diversity it craves.

    2) Improve Student Retention: The whole reason private schools like DU can even survive and compete with public schools has to do with smaller classes, access to faculty relationships, affluent alumni networks and better student experiences, where you aren’t just a number, but a part of something special

    Most students who leave DU before graduation leave for two reasons – one is cost and the other is experience, and there is often a big overlap between the two.

    The cost part is harder to solve. If DU is not charging in the ballpark of what its peers do, the affluent crowd won’t perceive DU to be an elite school, and DU needs those full-pay families in order to be financially viable. That said, only about 20% of DU families pay the full sticker price – and the other 80% pay a ‘discounted’ rate, where their “scholarships” are largely subsidized by the affluent DU families who pay full price. Increasing the endowment is the only way to become a need-blind university.

    The retention part is easier to solve. DU needs a more unified student body now so that students feel more connected and don’t leave. DU believes creating this sense of connection comes from bending over backwards to please all students by trying to appear more diverse than it really is (or perhaps can be). The problem is that students can see that DU can never really deliver diversity as its marketing promises. And once on campus, the current policies on “inclusive excellence” are at least as divisive as they are unifying. There is way too much segregation by identities and not enough emphasis on unity and what everyone shares in common. To build common experiences and shared identity, sports and school spirit is the fastest and best tool to cut across identity politics and build unity.

  3. My hunch is we graduate the # of students we expect each year, but many are transfers, so their success is not measured. DU is unique in that it accepts many students who feel they don’t really need a degree because of family connections. They will get the same job with or without a degree. You may not like me saying that, but it’s a fact. When I attended DU 10%-20% of the frosh never went to class; it was a free season of skiing to them and a expensive ski vacation paid by their parents. They flunk out and are replaced by transfers. DU accepts smart kids. It’s hard to flunk out of DU. It’s tough to pinpoint those applicants who want to get a degree. The below 100 Ranking of RIT surprises me. I believe their admission standards are high. (hockey players excluded)

  4. Good Article.

    All rankings are moved by money. DU’s 70% tuition dependence puts DU in a hole that private schools with larger endowments don’t have to deal with, and that makes it very hard for DU to do everything it would like to do to improve its rankings. DU can’t get much bigger. Once the endowment can get up to a $1 Billion or so from the $700 million+ it is today, that would really help. But before that happens, there are some steps DU can take in order to move up in the USNWR rankings:

    1) Increase Admission Selectivity: Simply put, DU is at the bottom of the “elite pool” of schools. Top schools don’t take more than 50% of applicants, and the very best schools accept only 10% or less. DU has shuttled between 53% and 75% acceptance rates in recent years because it must do so in order to order to fill its classes. While the average DU student has an impressive 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT/28 ACT, those kind of students have many choices of top schools, and they have a lot of “merit” aid (discounts) thrown at them by schools that are higher on the admission food chain. Only a small percentage of DU’s accepted students students actually matriculate here, so the key to rising in selectivity rankings means that the funnel at the top of the applicant pool needs to be larger. I think DU needs to grow from about 20,000 applicants to 30,000 in order to reject more students to get that acceptance rate below 50%. That means DU needs to be more nationally known and attractive, requiring DU to invest in areas that increase national awareness – such as sports, and an increased presence on both coasts, where the more affluent students families are. DU needs more “Full-Pay” students in order to offset the diversity it craves.

    2) Improve Student Retention: The whole reason private schools like DU can even survive and compete with public schools has to do with smaller classes, access to faculty relationships, affluent alumni networks and better student experiences, where you aren’t just a number, but a part of something special

    Most students who leave DU before graduation leave for two reasons – one is cost and the other is experience, and there is often a big overlap between the two.

    The cost part is harder to solve. If DU is not charging in the ballpark of what its peers do, the affluent crowd won’t perceive DU to be an elite school, and DU needs those full-pay families in order to be financially viable. That said, only about 20% of DU families pay the full sticker price – and the other 80% pay a ‘discounted’ rate, where their “scholarships” are largely subsidized by the affluent DU families who pay full price. Increasing the endowment is the only way to become a need-blind university.

    The retention part is easier to solve. DU needs a more unified student body now so that students feel more connected and don’t leave. DU believes creating this sense of connection comes from bending over backwards to please all students by trying to appear more diverse than it really is (or perhaps can be). The problem is that students can see that DU can never really deliver diversity as its marketing promises. And once on campus, the current policies on “inclusive excellence” are at least as divisive as they are unifying. There is way too much segregation by identities and not enough emphasis on unity and what everyone shares in common. To build common experiences and shared identity, sports and school spirit is the fastest and best tool to cut across identity politics and build unity.

  5. Much support and love for DU, but the fact that DU’s overall ranking in this publication has not improved much (if at all) in 20 years is kind of a disgrace, especially considering the immense capital improvements that have occurred on campus during that time. I do believe that various people have been asleep at the wheel on this, and there is no excuse for it. The ONLY thing that DU continually prides itself on and publicizes is “hey, look, we have the most diverse class ever this year!” That’s all well and good, you idiots, but now please work on the rankings that actually matter to a school’s reputation. On the bright side, the DU law school appears to be on an upswing in the rankings, moving up 13 spots to 63 the last time the rankings came out.

  6. Has Chancellor Chopp EVER addressed the need to do what it takes to move up in these rankings? The only things that I have heard her speak of, are inclusive excellence and making a “welcoming” campus that the community can really “engage” with. Good god, somebody please tell her that rising in these rankings 40 spots (which DU should have already done a long time ago) will do infinitely more for the school than any of this administration’s feel-good goals. Could it be that spouting meaningless platitudes is much easier to do, than improving the school’s ranking? Anyone that cares about DU should demand progress on this front, and call out the administration for using smoke screens of “engagement”, “diversity” and “inclusive excellence” to hide the failures that matter much more to the school’s reputation.

    1. First, the #96 ranking might sound low, but in reality, it’s quite high. There are about 4,700 schools of higher education in the USA, most of which have non-selective admissions, and over 3,000 of these schools issue four-year undergraduate degrees. For DU to be rated in the top 100 or 150 major ranking (US News, Forbes, etc.), means that DU is already in the top 3-5% of schools nationally, so when you are talking about moving up 40 spots in US News Rankings, that’s really only moving up a percentage point or two among all schools. The optical problem here is you just don’t see the other 2,700 four-year schools in the rankings at all, since US News only cares about visibly ranking about 300 schools – the top 10-12% or so.

      That said, it’s damn hard to move up 40 spots in US News, especially as many other schools in the top 200 have also invested heavily in the last 30 years, just as DU has.

      At the same time, population growth among college bound students has grown a lot. About 30 years ago, only 10% of the US over 25 population had a four year degree, and today, it’s closer to 35%. That said, the number of slots at elite colleges has not grown that much, meaning the very top schools can afford to be uber-selective now, while schools like DU catch the kids who don’t get into to the very top schools.

      Most college students in America (80%) go to college within a days drive of home, and the vast majority of those kids go to school within an hour of home. Using that geographic reality, DU sits in a relatively unpopulated part of the country, compared to schools in more populated regions, meaning DU is competing for a small number of kids that would actually even consider coming to Colorado for college.

      In short, it would take a lot of heavy lifting to move much higher….

      1. Good points, Swami. However, when you talk about 3,000 schools in the competitive pool, it would mean that there would be an average of 60 schools in the competitive pool in every state. Think about Colorado… there are probably only 10 schools in Colorado that one would think of as being in the same competitive pool as DU. (More in CA and NY, but less in other states) So I think I need to reduce your competitive pool number from 3,000 to 500. Which would put DU in the top 20% of schools nationally. Not bad, I guess. But last time I looked, the category that DU is in, is large national universities. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that this category even includes schools like CC and other small liberal arts schools, probably 40 of which have stellar reputations. So DU has even less competition in its category by virtue of that fact. I know that moving 40 spots sounds unrealistic. But I’m talking about an improvement of 40 spots over a period of like 20 years. Because if memory serves, DU was ranked at about the same place 20 years ago. The whole campus has been transformed over those 20 years. 3 hockey championships and a lax championship during those years should have provided more exposure, excitement and momentum for DU, as well. It would be reasonable to expect DU to move up an average of 2 spots per year during that time period. The fact that they haven’t moved up at all, is quite concerning. And it recently points to a serious mis-direction of administrative resources to “diversity and inclusivity” at the expense of the things that actually give a school a better reputation. I’m not saying that it’s easy to rise in the rankings, but DU has had sufficient momentum to do so.

  7. Need to really focus on the STEM fields, the Business School, and Law. These drive jobs and provide the most value to students, imo. There has been great investment into each of these recently and it must continue, particularly with engineering in the current “tech” era. Whether or not a medical school would have been feasible is beyond me but the research and reputation that it can bring is impressive. Unfortunately there has been another in Denver to open recently and plans for an additional up north. I’ll also echo the sentiment above regarding diversity. DU is fine to make it a factor, but it shouldn’t be a major selling point. Right now I would suggest that more important than continuing to build these gorgeous facilities, more resources need to be put toward recruiting elite faculty in the fields I mentioned as well as doing whatever else to make these programs as strong as possible. Having a decent liberal arts college is great but the reality is that for many students it doesn’t translate to a job and many middle class families are recognizing this. I personally would not allow my children to attend a school as pricey as DU without a reasonable plan in place for how their intended degree could realistically help them get a job.

  8. Much support and love for DU, but the fact that DU’s overall ranking in this publication has not improved much (if at all) in 20 years is kind of a disgrace, especially considering the immense capital improvements that have occurred on campus during that time. I do believe that various people have been asleep at the wheel on this, and there is no excuse for it. The ONLY thing that DU continually prides itself on and publicizes is “hey, look, we have the most diverse class ever this year!” That’s all well and good, you idiots, but now please work on the rankings that actually matter to a school’s reputation. On the bright side, the DU law school appears to be on an upswing in the rankings, moving up 13 spots to 63 the last time the rankings came out.

  9. Has Chancellor Chopp EVER addressed the need to do what it takes to move up in these rankings? The only things that I have heard her speak of, are inclusive excellence and making a “welcoming” campus that the community can really “engage” with. Good god, somebody please tell her that rising in these rankings 40 spots (which DU should have already done a long time ago) will do infinitely more for the school than any of this administration’s feel-good goals. Could it be that spouting meaningless platitudes is much easier to do, than improving the school’s ranking? Anyone that cares about DU should demand progress on this front, and call out the administration for using smoke screens of “engagement”, “diversity” and “inclusive excellence” to hide the failures that matter much more to the school’s reputation.

    1. First, the #96 ranking might sound low, but in reality, it’s quite high. There are about 4,700 schools of higher education in the USA, most of which have non-selective admissions, and over 3,000 of these schools issue four-year undergraduate degrees. For DU to be rated in the top 100 or 150 major ranking (US News, Forbes, etc.), means that DU is already in the top 3-5% of schools nationally, so when you are talking about moving up 40 spots in US News Rankings, that’s really only moving up a percentage point or two among all schools. The optical problem here is you just don’t see the other 2,700 four-year schools in the rankings at all, since US News only cares about visibly ranking about 300 schools – the top 10-12% or so.

      That said, it’s damn hard to move up 40 spots in US News, especially as many other schools in the top 200 have also invested heavily in the last 30 years, just as DU has.

      At the same time, population growth among college bound students has grown a lot. About 30 years ago, only 10% of the US over 25 population had a four year degree, and today, it’s closer to 35%. That said, the number of slots at elite colleges has not grown that much, meaning the very top schools can afford to be uber-selective now, while schools like DU catch the kids who don’t get into to the very top schools.

      Most college students in America (80%) go to college within a days drive of home, and the vast majority of those kids go to school within an hour of home. Using that geographic reality, DU sits in a relatively unpopulated part of the country, compared to schools in more populated regions, meaning DU is competing for a small number of kids that would actually even consider coming to Colorado for college.

      In short, it would take a lot of heavy lifting to move much higher….

      1. Good points, Swami. However, when you talk about 3,000 schools in the competitive pool, it would mean that there would be an average of 60 schools in the competitive pool in every state. Think about Colorado… there are probably only 10 schools in Colorado that one would think of as being in the same competitive pool as DU. (More in CA and NY, but less in other states) So I think I need to reduce your competitive pool number from 3,000 to 500. Which would put DU in the top 20% of schools nationally. Not bad, I guess. But last time I looked, the category that DU is in, is large national universities. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that this category even includes schools like CC and other small liberal arts schools, probably 40 of which have stellar reputations. So DU has even less competition in its category by virtue of that fact. I know that moving 40 spots sounds unrealistic. But I’m talking about an improvement of 40 spots over a period of like 20 years. Because if memory serves, DU was ranked at about the same place 20 years ago. The whole campus has been transformed over those 20 years. 3 hockey championships and a lax championship during those years should have provided more exposure, excitement and momentum for DU, as well. It would be reasonable to expect DU to move up an average of 2 spots per year during that time period. The fact that they haven’t moved up at all, is quite concerning. And it recently points to a serious mis-direction of administrative resources to “diversity and inclusivity” at the expense of the things that actually give a school a better reputation. I’m not saying that it’s easy to rise in the rankings, but DU has had sufficient momentum to do so.

  10. Need to really focus on the STEM fields, the Business School, and Law. These drive jobs and provide the most value to students, imo. There has been great investment into each of these recently and it must continue, particularly with engineering in the current “tech” era. Whether or not a medical school would have been feasible is beyond me but the research and reputation that it can bring is impressive. Unfortunately there has been another in Denver to open recently and plans for an additional up north. I’ll also echo the sentiment above regarding diversity. DU is fine to make it a factor, but it shouldn’t be a major selling point. Right now I would suggest that more important than continuing to build these gorgeous facilities, more resources need to be put toward recruiting elite faculty in the fields I mentioned as well as doing whatever else to make these programs as strong as possible. Having a decent liberal arts college is great but the reality is that for many students it doesn’t translate to a job and many middle class families are recognizing this. I personally would not allow my children to attend a school as pricey as DU without a reasonable plan in place for how their intended degree could realistically help them get a job.

  11. There are 312 schools in the pool for U.S. News Universities. U.S. News defines this category as: “Schools in the National Universities category, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs. These colleges also are committed to producing groundbreaking research.” So, DU is being ranked against peer schools, not all colleges and universities. Being ranked in the Top 100 of this pool allows DU to charge a premium and attract higher quality students. With a student that just graduated from college, I can assure you that both students and parents look at rankings before selecting schools. DU has also used the ‘Top 100’ standing to promote DU to prospective students. It is very important.

  12. There are 312 schools in the pool for U.S. News Universities. U.S. News defines this category as: “Schools in the National Universities category, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs. These colleges also are committed to producing groundbreaking research.” So, DU is being ranked against peer schools, not all colleges and universities. Being ranked in the Top 100 of this pool allows DU to charge a premium and attract higher quality students. With a student that just graduated from college, I can assure you that both students and parents look at rankings before selecting schools. DU has also used the ‘Top 100’ standing to promote DU to prospective students. It is very important.

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