Lawrence ranked as a top college town; a look at how far KU has fallen in top college rankings

photo by: Mike Yoder

The KU campus is pictured Friday, Feburary 6, 2015.

We are definitely in full college town mode these days as students are back, evidenced by the large amounts of bean bags and lava lamps being carted out of Walmart. (Despite rumors to the contrary, I’m convinced dorms are still filled with those items and that college kids still know how to buy items in a brick-and-mortar store.) Regardless, know that Lawrence again has been ranked one of the best college towns in America.

The website Livability — which somehow makes its living ranking communities and giving moving advice — has declared Lawrence is the fourth best college community in America. The website said it studied about 2,000 communities based on factors such as how its median income compared with the median rent rates, the number of education jobs in a community and the number of young people in the city.

The study didn’t provide any of the underlying statistics for Lawrence, so I can’t share those. Some of the data about incomes versus rental costs would have been interesting. Lawrence is talking a lot about affordable housing issues, and it is always interesting to compare how our affordability stacks up to other similar communities. This study weighs the affordability factor pretty heavily, so I’m guessing Lawrence was found to be too out of line compared with other communities.

But enough with all that sort of talk. Let’s get to the important stuff: how describes Lawrence. The site highlights that Lawrence is highly educated; about 55 percent of residents have a college degree. It also says the city is home to a “number of job-creating manufacturing facilities” and highlights the Hallmark card production facility. It also highlights Massachusetts Street, Papa Keno’s pizza, Ladybird Diner and beer from Free State, among other locations.

The site says what sets Lawrence apart from other college towns is that we like to do our own thing and are “quirky, progressive and full of life.” The piece hypothesizes that is likely because the town was founded by abolitionists. I can’t tell you how many modern-day Lawrence residents tell me they often feel overcome by the spirit of James Lane. (That sound you hear is people googling James Lane.)

Oddly, the site also lists a “local dream job” for each community. In Lawrence, that is an educator at the Watkins Museum of History.

As for Lawrence’s competition to become the best college community in America, here is a look at the top five:

• No. 1: Ithaca, N.Y., which is home to Cornell University.

• No. 2: Ames, Iowa, which is home to Iowa State.

• No. 3: Provo, Utah, which is home to Brigham Young University

• No. 4: Lawrence.

• No. 5: Corvallis, Ore., which is home to Oregon State University.

I know you are wondering: The dream local job in No. 1-ranked Ithaca is “any job (literally) at the Cornell Dairy.” I’m thinking folks at are perhaps not familiar with all the jobs at a dairy. If I’m holding a shovel at a dairy — unless I’m using it to scoop my ice cream — it is not a dream job.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Earlier this week we reported on a more prestigious set of rankings: U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of public universities. KU ranked 61st out of the 132 “national” public universities included in the report. That was a drop of eight spots from last year’s rankings.

Come to find out, by historical standards, that was a pretty significant drop.

The eight-spot decline led someone to ask me whether that was the largest drop KU had ever experienced in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. It is tough to say definitively because an archive of all the rankings the magazine has ever done is hard to come by. But I did review website archives of and back to 2011. The eight-spot drop is the largest decline in that time period.

Here’s a look at the roller coaster of rankings. (Note: The year refers to the year the rankings were published. So, the 2018 ranking is the one released just a few days ago, although the magazine insists on calling it the 2019 ranking.)

• 2018: 61st

• 2017: 53rd

• 2016: 56th

• 2015: 55th

• 2014: 50th

• 2013: 47th

• 2012: 51st

• 2011: 46th

If you are keeping track at home, KU has fallen in five of the last eight rankings published by the magazine. Certainly, KU has been subject to several funding cuts from the state of Kansas during that time, in addition to significant tuition increases. Draw your own conclusions about whether that may have hampered KU’s efforts to climb in the rankings.

In recent years, the official statements from KU leaders have downplayed the importance of the rankings, somewhat. For example, this year’s press release quoted KU Chancellor Douglas Girod as acknowledging the rankings can be a useful tool for students and families and that KU wants to do well in such reports. But he also stressed that rankings are just one of many ways success is measured at the university.

No doubt that is true. But there was a time when the university seemed to ascribe some additional importance to the rankings. I happened to look at the 2002 press release from the university. In that year KU ranked 41st out of the then-162 public universities that were ranked.

Then-Chancellor Robert Hemenway used the rankings as an opportunity to increase expectations.

“As gratifying as this ranking is, the University of Kansas has the potential to do even better,” Hemenway said in the release. “With the right partnership of state funding and private and tuition support, KU can be a top 25 university.”

I’m not sure how close KU ever got to the goal of a top 25 ranking, as the web archives make it difficult to find listings for each year.


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