KU falls 30 spots in latest U.S. News & World Report rankings; new metrics being used to rank schools

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in February 2023.

The University of Kansas experienced one of the nation’s largest declines in the much-used U.S. News & World Report rankings released on Monday.

KU fell 30 spots in the overall rankings to No. 151 in the country among public and private universities that have a national footprint. Its ranking among national public schools fell 24 spots to No. 80.

The drop now has KU in the bottom half of the rankings among fellow Big 12 schools, and KU also ranks last — now by a wide margin — among its public peers that are in the prestigious Association of American Universities, which recognizes the top research universities in North America.

A change in how U.S. News & World Report factors issues such as student debt and graduation rates for low-income and first-generation college students played a role in KU’s decline, the university said in a press release. KU noted that U.S. News & World Report doubled the weighting of some of those factors compared with past rankings.

“We appreciate that prospective students and their families may look to these rankings, and we always prefer to increase our standing,” Chancellor Douglas Girod said in the release. “That said, we remain focused on our own measures of success, which align with the Kansas Board of Regents’ strategic plan, the needs of Kansas businesses and communities, and our broader aspirations as one of the nation’s leading research institutions.”

A KU spokeswoman said university leaders were not surprised to see the drop in KU’s rankings, “given what U.S. News leaders have described as “the most significant methodological change in the rankings’ history.”

KU has not seen its rankings fall in a single year by such a large margin in recent memory. However, the university has seen its rankings erode over the years. In 1998, KU was ranked No. 30 among public universities.

U.S. News & World Report did not provide a comprehensive list showing which universities rose or fell the most compared with last year’s rankings. However, there were signs that KU’s fall of 30 spots ranked among the largest. The New York Times on Monday published an article that highlighted some of the largest declines it found. The largest decliner mentioned in its article was Tulane, which dropped 29 spots.

The Journal-World also gathered ranking information for all of the universities in the Big 12 and all of the public universities in the AAU. KU had the largest decline of any of those schools. KU’s decline of 30 spots was the largest in the Big 12, with BYU next with a drop of 26 spots.

Among AAU peers, KU’s decline was 20 spots greater than any other public university in the association. Iowa, Utah and Arizona each saw its rankings drop by 10 spots.

The rankings are designed to be used by prospective students seeking to compare potential college choices. How much they factor into college choices and overall enrollment totals is unclear. The Kansas Board of Regents, any day now, is expected to announce that KU’s freshmen enrollment for the school year that began last month is the largest in the university’s history.

KU leaders, as they have discussed that increase ahead of the announcement, haven’t been highlighting KU’s national rankings as a reason behind the boost. Rather, they’ve speculated that increased attention from KU’s National Championship in basketball and a resurgent football program have caused some students to give KU a second look. The university also has increased its marketing in select out-of-state markets, where KU’s tuition competes well with those of other schools, and KU has restructured some of its financial aid programs, among other initiatives.

But the latest rankings do create some questions for KU. One of the biggest is why so many other state universities across the country benefited from U.S. News & World Report’s change in methodology. The focus of The New York Times article, for instance, was how many private universities had fallen in the rankings while mid-ranked, lower-profile state universities made big gains.

There were signs of that among public universities in the Big 12 Conference. The University of Houston jumped 49 spots in the rankings, while West Virginia rose 18 spots, University of Central Florida 13 spots, and Iowa State 12 spots.

The new rankings — along with new entrants into the conference — created a dramatic change in KU’s standing in the Big 12. Last year, KU was the fourth-highest ranked university in the conference and was the second highest-ranked public university in the conference.

This year, KU has the 10th highest ranking among the 14 schools in the conference. It has the seventh-highest ranking among public universities in the conference.

The new rankings also create questions about issues related to student debt and graduation rates for low-income students who receive Pell Grants and for first-generation college students. Those metrics were among those that U.S. News & World Report decided to weight more heavily in this year’s rankings.

KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb Peterson said KU has been focusing on many of those issues, and said it has its own numbers that show progress.

“Reducing debt and improving placement after graduation are objectives in our Jayhawks Rising strategic plan,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email. “We are aligned with the (Regents) strategic plan — which emphasizes affordability, access and success.

“One illustration of KU’s efforts is that 10 years ago, KU provided just $8.8 million in institutional need-based aid. In 2022, the amount we provided had increased to $35 million. Also of note is that our merit-based aid no longer requires an SAT or ACT score, making merit-based aid more accessible to more students.”

Barcomb-Peterson also said that some of KU’s fall in the rankings is based on what U.S. News decided to stop measuring. The organization no longer is measuring the percentage of incoming freshmen who finished high school in the top 10% of their classes. The decision to eliminate that metric may have particularly impacted KU’s ranking.

“This departure from past U.S. News metrics coincides with KU’s successful efforts to attract academically talented students, which as you know was evidenced by last year’s most academically talented freshman class based on high school GPA,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

Here’s a look at the U.S. News & World Report 2024 rankings of each Big 12 university:

• Texas: No. 32, up six spots.

• TCU: No. 89, down 9 spots.

• Baylor: No. 93, down 16 spots.

• Iowa State: No. 115, up 12 spots.

• BYU: No. 115, down 26 spots.

• Central Florida: No. 124, up 13 spots.

• Oklahoma: No. 124, up 3 spots.

• Houston: No. 133, up 49 spots.

• Cincinnati: No. 142, up 9 spots.

• KU: No. 151, down 30 spots.

• Kansas State: No. 170, down 4 spots.

• Oklahoma State: No. 185, down 3 spots.

• Texas Tech: No. 216, up 3 spots.

• West Virginia: No. 216, up 18 spots.

A group that KU covets its spot in as much or more than the Big 12 Conference is its membership in the AAU. KU uses its inclusion in that invitation-only association to market itself as one of the top research universities in the country.

However, as the Journal-World has reported for the last two years, KU’s U.S. News & World Report rankings have tied for last among all public universities in the AAU. With the latest rankings, KU now occupies the last space spot by itself and its U.S. News & World Report ranking is now 27 spots below the next-lowest ranked AAU member, the University of Missouri.

Here’s a look at the rankings of the public schools in the AAU: UCLA: 15; California-Berkeley: 15; Michigan: 21; North Carolina: 22; Virginia: 24; Florida: 28; California-San Diego: 28; California-Davis: 28; Texas: 32; California-Irvine: 33; Georgia Tech: 33; California-Santa Barbara: 35; Wisconsin: 35; Illinois: 35; Washington: 40; Rutgers: 40; Ohio State: 43; Purdue: 43; Maryland: 46; Texas A&M: 47; Minnesota: 53; Stony Brook: 58; Michigan State: 60; Penn State: 60; Pitt: 67; Indiana: 73; Buffalo: 76; California-Riverside: 76; California-Santa Cruz: 82; South Florida: 89; Iowa: 93; Oregon: 98; Colorado: 105; Arizona State: 105; Utah: 115; Arizona: 115; Missouri: 124; KU: 151.

AAU leaders have never indicated that U.S. News & World Report rankings play any role in how the AAU chooses which schools to add or drop from its membership rolls. But nonetheless, some faculty members have expressed increasing concern over the years that KU’s membership in the organization could be at risk. KU leaders, however, have said that research funding and other metrics that likely are important to the AAU have been trending in positive directions for KU.

U.S. News & World Report also ranked some undergraduate programs at KU. Those rankings for 2024 include:

• School of Nursing, No. 17 among public universities, up five spots from a year ago.

• School of Business, No. 38 among public universities, up four spots.

• School of Engineering, No. 54 among public universities, down three spots.


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