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!