DU falls to #97 in US News Rankings; Continues 8-Year rankings backslide

In some disappointing news, the University Denver has fallen an additional slot from #96 to #97 in yesterday’s (Sept. 9) release of the annual US News and World Report Ranking of National Universities, the most well-known US university ranking system. The fall marks yet another downward notch in a near-continuous DU backslide since 2012 when DU ranked #82, and brings DU another step closer to falling out of the top 100 altogether.

In DU’s defense, we’ve heard frustration from some DU administration members who cite changes in the US News rankings methodology which, in their view, has caused much of the DU’s recent backslide. For example, DU had once ranked highly among high school guidance counselors, which formerly counted strongly in the overall US News rankings, only to have that metric later be discarded by US News. Similarly, DU has also worked hard for years to improve its undergraduate admissions selectivity/acceptance rate from 77% to 53% today, only to see selectivity rankings also thrown out of the US News rankings.

At the same time, DU may not do as well on metrics that suddenly matter more to US News, such as social mobility, which considers graduation rates for students who received federal Pell Grants, financial aid that is typically reserved for those with annual household family incomes below $50,000. DU could spend years concentrating on improving on these new metrics, only to see these same metrics abruptly replaced by something else.

Despite DU’s concerns about the changing US News metrics, however, all schools face the same metrics shell game. The bigger problem is the wider perception of a backsliding national ranking. The last four years – under the Chancellorship of Rebecca Chopp – have been particularly disturbing for us, with DU falling 11 spots – from #86 to #97. DU had been moving on a mostly upward progression under Chancellor Dan Ritchie from 1989 to 2005, who had once proclaimed that DU was “headed for the top 50.” And DU had been mostly moving laterally during the Robert Coombe Chancellorship between 2005 and 2015.

Now, DU is dangerously close to dropping out of the top 100, which could severely hurt the University’s reputational reach and evolution, including elimination from the consideration sets that top students, faculty, and employers use in recruiting. It also hurts DU’s tuition justification, fundraising, national peer groups and, perhaps most importantly for students and alumni, it will undoubtedly affect the perceived value of a DU degree. Perhaps it’s fortunate that DU’s principal local competitors, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, have also fallen — to #104 and #166 respectively in the same rankings this year.

It’s possible that a key reason for DU’s decline is the school’s recent emphasis on diversity issues, which may, unfortunately, be impacting retention rates, which remain an important metric to US News. Despite many millions spent on diversity by DU in recent years, DU’s undergraduate retention rate has been flat for years at about 87%, while the overall four-year graduation rates are stuck in the high 60s. Meanwhile, as measured by Princeton Review, student interaction among different races is awful and campus political participation is low, which as we have discussed before, we believe are proxies for both disengagement and fear, possible disturbing byproducts of an often confrontational and complaint-based diversity emphasis.

Stopping the Slide

Our alumni-based advice to DU is fairly simple. Academics must become priority one. We believe that great students of all backgrounds aspire to attend the best schools, and the best schools are the ones that prioritize academics.

Priority two needs to be improving the retention rates. This will require more cost containment on tuition, which is the principal barrier to retention. While this is difficult when some 78% of DU’s money comes from tuition revenue and the undergrad student body cannot grow very much due to space and applicant constraints and a middling $750 million-ish endowment, this is where DU needs to get creative. Bring in those students who really want to be here and ensure they have a great experience. In our view, the funding of athletics and school spirit initiatives are two vital tools to help create a positive experience for all students. These can help unify our school, break down barriers, and create more emotional bonding. If students are having a great experience, more of them will stay…and more of them will love our school. In addition, more school unity and better experiences could also help bolster DU’s low alumni giving rates, which also harms DU in the US News rankings.

Priority three should be a targeted campaign to improve DU’s reputation among national academic leaders, whose opinions comprise 35% of the US News rankings. To move up, DU must be better known among the national academic community. It’s time for DU to move beyond its long cultural reticence to self-promotion. DU is competing for limited resources and among an elite pool of very fierce, well-capitalized, very brand-centric competitors. Now is the time to tell the DU story to the precise people who matter.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on stopping the slide!

7 thoughts on “DU falls to #97 in US News Rankings; Continues 8-Year rankings backslide”

  1. Swami, nice article! As I alluded to in another comment, it is kind of a shame that SO much emphasis is put on these semi-arbitrary rankings. Especially when they keep changing the criteria from year to year, as your article details. I didn’t realize that DU’s acceptance rate had decreased from 77% to 53%–that’s great progress, in my opinion. But then they remove acceptance rate as a factor?? WTF?! I can understand if DU is frustrated by that.

    As much as it sucks that the US News rankings are so important, it’s part of the chancellor’s job to make sure that DU keeps up with them. And to go from a trajectory towards the 60’s, to a fall to the low 90’s, is concerning, and speaks poorly of the post-Ritchie chancellors. I do wonder what will happen to these rankings, as they seem to move from objective criteria like acceptance rates, to whatever new touchy feely criteria they just incorporated. Maybe eventually it will all be based upon the aura that floats above a campus.

    I also wonder whether DU’s decision to stop requiring SAT’s and ACT’s will cause DU to plummet in the rankings. Or is it some kind of genius move that will actually help them in the rankings? Hopefully the latter, but I don’t have a ton of confidence at the moment.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Trombone! I’m sure this #97 ranking bothers Chancellor Haefner, and that he will be quite focused on moving DU upwards in the rankings again. It may be that other Chancellors in the past 15 years didn’t care about rankings as much as they cared about creating more diversity and opportunity. I think we all want diversity and opportunity as well, but academic excellence needs to be the top priority.

      The SAT removal option is interesting. Much of the cover story on that has largely been about schools trying to being fairer to those underserved students, who don’t benefit from the cultural biases and test prep industries that serve the privileged. But I also think that a few good schools have also made the tests optional because they may get more opt-out applications, which in turn makes the schools more popular and selective. With the US News now downplaying the admissions selectivity metric, I think the argument now returns to schools recognizing that test scores have many limitations. Good students with good scores are going to submit test scores anyway.

  2. Great analysis, Puck. As you mention it is difficult to hit a moving target and the other day when I saw these rankings I was pleasantly surprised to see the acceptance rate had downtrended considerably (and hope the trend continues).

    Fully agree with the priorities you have outlined. If they do anything over the next decade I hope it is strongly emphasize the academics, particularly STEM + Business. Give students a great education that results in gainful employment and the rest takes care of itself. The campus looks great and the location highly desirable. Throw in a reputation for being an institution where students can obtain well-paying careers and the talent will come, and from all backgrounds.

    1. Given Chancellor Haefner’s background as a mathematics professor, I am pretty sure we will see more STEM in DU’s future…

      As for the acceptance rate, DU has gone from 5,000 undergrad applications a year in the Hyde Interview days (as recently as 2012, back when DU could actually interview most of them) to over 20,000 applications per year today, (making the Hyde interviews impossible) as the common app and kids applying to 10-20 schools is now standard, given how competitive admissions has become for elite schools. Even with a 53% acceptance rate, DU only enrolls about 13% of the 20,000+ kids who apply, as these students mostly have several great choices. Such is life at the bottom of the elite pool…

    1. The NCAA prefers ‘neutral site’ regionals over on-campus regionals as a fairness issue, and the coaches of smaller schools don’t want to play big schools on the big school’s home ice.

      DU only bid at Loveland when the NCAA finally reduced its guarantee (the money DU pays the NCAA to host) to $100K vs the $150K that it used to be. DU should be able to at least break even with a $100K payout and should make some money if DU qualifies.

  3. You should note that while DU is #97 they are tied with six other schools at #97. This means that are no higher than #97 and as low as #103. Whether this a significant change from a year ago, who knows.

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