The most-cited college ranking system has given Kansas University its lowest marks since the list began.
U.S. News and World Report magazine ranks KU tied for 45th among public universities in this year's America's Best Colleges edition, which hits newsstands Monday.
That ranking, down three spots from last year, is the worst KU has fared since the magazine began listing public and private universities separately in 1998.
"The reality is you like to be able to see yourself rising every year," Chancellor Robert Hemenway said. "But the reality is, you don't always rise every year. We're as guilty as anyone. We like to cite these when we go up and not cite them when they're not so good."
Hemenway has said he wanted KU to be in the top 25 of public universities by 2010. But he's also said U.S. News rankings are only one of several measures of that goal.
KU has dropped significantly in the rankings since 1998, when the university was 30th among public schools. Its ranking has been up and down since then, hovering between 39th and 45th since 2000.
"We're one of a number of universities in a clump that have been in that 40 to 45 range," Hemenway said. "You might go one way or the other in any given year."
Five Big 12 universities were in the top 50 public universities. They were the University of Texas-Austin (17th), Texas A&M; (tied for 21st), Iowa State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia (both tied for 38th) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (tied with KU at 45th).
The University of California-Berkeley was the top public university. Harvard and Princeton, for the third straight year, were tied as the top private universities.
When compared with all universities - public and private - KU was tied for 97th, down from a tie at 90th a year ago.
The magazine uses 15 factors to create its rankings. The largest categories are peer assessment (25 percent of ranking), student retention rates (20 percent), faculty resources (20 percent) and selectivity of admissions (15 percent).
KU officials said they had yet to receive the full data set that the magazine used to create the ranking. They also hadn't received information on how the School of Business and School of Engineering ranked individually. Those are expected to be posted on the U.S. News Web site today.
However, the data the university did have showed slides in several areas:
¢ The university's peer assessment score, or its reputation as ranked by administrators at other universities, dropped from 3.4 to 3.3 on a possible score of 5.
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¢ The six-year graduation rate dropped from 58 percent to 57 percent.
¢ The percent of classes with more than 50 people rose from 12 percent to 13 percent.
¢ The university's student acceptance rate rose from 68 percent to 69 percent. Generally, universities with lower acceptance rates are considered more elite.
KU is working on several of those areas and expects to see improvement in the future, Hemenway said. For instance, a recent accreditation report recommended the university establish more selective admissions criteria than other state universities, a move administrators are considering.
Despite the ranking, Hemenway said he was pleased with the university's performance and didn't plan to make decisions based on U.S. News and World Report's findings.
"I don't think it's sliding," he said of KU. "We're not going to hand over important decisions of the university to a news magazine. We're going to go about doing what is best for the university based on the same criteria we've used the last 10 years."
The magazine has been criticized for years for tinkering with its formula, but it's remained the same for three years. Some critics have said the formula should be changed because it fails to account for many aspects of educational quality. More administrators appear to be protesting the rankings by declining to participate in the magazine's peer review surveys. The survey's response rate has fallen from 67 percent in 2002 to 57 percent this year.
"No one can know for sure what is going on at another institution," said Marty O'Connell, dean of admission at McDaniel College in Maryland, who refuses to grade other schools. "The colleges with the largest endowments always end up being the ones with the highest peer ratings."
Robert Morse, the magazine's director of data research, acknowledges that the response rate has slipped, but "there's still a credible number of respondents per school. We're not in any danger of having a school rated by just five people."
In part because of the controversy, Donna Shank, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents, said she wasn't overly concerned with the rankings, either.
"I know it's important to KU, and I know they've stated it as a goal," she said. "But they look at a lot of factors, and some are not in the university's control.
"It's not something I'd worry a lot about, given KU's reputation and ranking anyway. They're still an exceptional institution. Is it disappointing for KU, given its goal to be a top 25 university? Probably yes."
- The Associated Press contributed information to this report.