Charting a way ahead
University officials, students evaluate and plan as annual U.S. News and World Report rankings released Tuesday
MSU maintained a top-100 ranking this year from U.S. News and World Report — ranking No. 73 out of 281 national universities, a ranking officials say can be used as a benchmark for potential academic progress.
The university also garnered high rankings for its undergraduate business and engineering programs, ranking No. 27 and No. 43, respectively. Capturing MSU’s only No. 1 spot for the third year in a row was the supply chain management program within the Eli Broad College of Business.
The overall ranking, No. 73, is down one spot from this past year and two from the year before. It is the third year that MSU has tied with the University of Iowa.
Among 173 public national universities, MSU ranks No. 29. The ranking puts MSU behind nine Big 10 universities, including the soon-to-be-added University of Maryland and Rutgers.
Other institutional challenges within MSU and at a state level could present challenges, officials have noted in the past, including funding for higher education.
“At some level, all of the institutions keep an eye on (rankings) as a way to benchmark,” Acting Provost June Youatt said. “It’s interesting to see the shift, not what the discrete number is.”
U.S. News uses about 16 variables, all weighted differently, to compile the overall university rankings, but undergraduate programs are ranked only by peer survey.
The most highly weighted variables are peer assessment and graduate retention rate. Other variables include class size, faculty-to-student ratio, faculty resources, selectivity and alumni giving.
“All of the institutions would explain that they’re not sure that the metrics are the same as what we would use to talk about our quality,” Youatt said.
MSU is ranked higher in rankings from Washington Monthly than U.S. News, and that’s because of what is measured. In the Washington Monthly’s ranking, the university ranked No. 30 this year, up four places from 2012. The ranking measures social mobility, service and research.
“I would stress that (U.S. News) is only one ranking,” said Kyle Sweitzer, data resource analyst for the MSU Office of Planning and Budgets. “There are many out there. I think it’s fair to say that any ranking only measures certain things, and they’re each only as good as their methodology.”
It has been many years since a public university has cracked the top 10 of the U.S. News rankings, he added. The rankings are very stable because of the weight on peer evaluation.
“(Massachusetts Institution of Technology) is always going to be good, Harvard (University) is always going to be good. But it’s hard for other schools to move up,” Sweitzer said.
The undergraduate program rankings rely purely on peer assessment, and MSU’s deans of engineering and business see good and bad in that.
“They can be manipulated by spending money on marketing and letting people know what you’re doing,” said Stefanie Lenway, dean of the Eli Broad College of Business. “I won’t say they’re not meaningful — being in the top 50 is good, but there are good schools that aren’t there.”
Leo Kempel, the acting dean of the College of Engineering, said he thinks the peer assessment is a good way to measure undergraduate business and engineering because peers have a good idea of what’s going on.
“There’s often things we know about ourselves that others don’t,” he said. “But, at the same time, you look at your own program very critically on how you can do better.”
The business college’s undergraduate program dropped three spots in this year’s U.S. News rankings, but officials said it’s not a worrisome change.
“It’s really no difference,” Lenway said. “It’s pretty good. We always want to get better.”
The business college rank of No. 27 is behind eight Big 10 universities. But Lenway said a major impediment to MSU’s program is that there are 5,000 undergraduate students — possibly the biggest one in the Big 10.
Innovations are about to happen in the college, which she believes could boost rankings in the future.
“We have to stick to our mission,” Lenway said. “We give students the best experience we can, and I’m not sure it’s completely measured by the rankings.”
One ranking that she didn’t dispute was the No. 1 spot awarded to supply chain management.
“It’s tremendous to be No. 1 in supply chain management again, for the third year in a row,” Lenway said. “We’re very proud of the achievement. It reflects the efforts of faculty to innovate their teaching.”
The engineering ranking is a source of pride for the school, officials said, but one student was disappointed by the outcome.
Engineering ranked No. 43, tying with Yale University, Rutgers, the University of Notre Dame, Washington University in St. Louis and Arizona State University.
“I’m very happy with who we’re tied with, these are great institutions,” Kempel said. “Certainly when a peer institution thinks highly of your program, that’s a good thing — that’s something that’s an indication of quality.”
But the ranking was a surprise for mechanical engineering senior Zach Averill. He said he thought the rank should be higher based on his experience in the college.
“MSU’s program ensures you have the skills to do well in interviews, presentations and marketing,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to grow beyond technical aspects. There’s a great plethora of skills that they provide.”
Take a look at our interactive breakdown of the rankings: