On Sunday, Sep. 17, 2023, the U.S. News and World Report released the new 2024 Best Colleges ranking. It was a significant shock to the Brandeis community, as Brandeis University dropped 16 spots, from #44 on the list down to #60 on the list of Best National University Rankings.
Brandeis reached its historical highest ranking of #28 back in 1998, then continued to fluctuate around the threshold of top 30 universities in the next decade. In 2019—when the class of 2024 was applying for college—Brandeis still held a ranking of #35. However, the university’s ranking started dropping rapidly ever since, until it reached its historical low this year.
As soon as the news spread, Brandeis students expressed their discontent, confusion and anger towards the significant drop. A day after the ranking was released, University President Ron Liebowitz sent out an email to address this, acknowledging its impact upon the Brandeis community, while also encouraging the community to look positively towards the University’s other areas of opportunity. While Liebowitz claimed that “We maintain that no ranking can define what school is the best option for any individual student,” the new ranking still impacted Brandeis negatively, leaving many questions of the angry students unaddressed: why was the drop so significant? Will the university continue to make changes to bring the ranking up next year? Is it worth paying more than $60,000 per year to attend a #60 college?
One of the biggest reasons behind the drop was that U.S. News weighed a lot of the factors differently this year. Dozens of factors were considered this year: graduation rates, full-time faculty, first generation graduation rates, first generation graduation rate performance, peer assessment, Pell graduation rates, Pell graduation performance, student-faculty ratio, first-year retention rates, borrower debt, college grads earning more than a high school grad, standardized tests, faculty salaries and financial resources per student. The new ranking criteria, according to New York Times, “assigned greater emphasis to graduation rates for students who received need-based Pell grants and retention. It also introduced metrics tied to first-generation college students and to whether recent graduates were earning more than people who had completed only high school.”
Compared to the metrics last year, U.S. News put a greater emphasis on factors related to Pell grants—federal aid that is only awarded to undergraduates who display exceptional financial need—and first generation students, while taking out factors like class size, terminal degree faculty, alumni giving average, graduate debt proportion borrowing and high school class standing. Brandeis’ ranking was particularly affected by the removal of class size as a deciding factor, according to Liebowitz’s email: “as our class sizes are small—60 percent of our classes have 19 students or fewer—and that point of pride for the university accounted for a significant 8 percent of the prior score.”
All of the new changes this year favor public state schools, but put small and medium-sized private institutions like Brandeis in disadvantage. For example, public universities like University of California, Davis and University of California, Merced experienced a 10 and 28 spot raise, respectively; private universities like Wake Forest University moved down 18 spots, while Tulane University dropped more significantly from #44 to #73. Besides Brandeis, many other Boston-based universities, like Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and Tufts, all experienced a drop to some degree.
The leadership also raised their voice at other institutions where the new ranking criteria also brought negative impact. Boston College’s University Communications stated that “but the University continued to be negatively affected by the 2019 change in U.S. News’ methodology that rewards state universities with a high volume of Pell Grant-eligible students” on their official website. Michael Fitts, President of Tulane University, also made his statement towards the shift of criteria. He believed that U.S. News made a consequential error by ignoring some once-highly-valued criterias, like the academic quality of students, the academic qualifications of the faculty, the number of small classes offered, and the level of financial resources devoted to students and faculty. “This latest iteration of U.S. News’ annual exercise highlights the shortcomings of attempting to numerically rank universities with vastly different missions, sizes, locations, and student populations,” according to Fitts.
Brandeis, just like the other prestigious private universities in the same boat, maintained its confidence in the quality of education that students receive. As Liebowitz concluded in his message, “For the past 75 years, Brandeis has developed significant and distinctive strengths that have made it an outstanding choice for our students. We will continue to refine and excel in those areas that align with the university’s strategic goals.”
The Hoot also reached out to Julie Jette, the Interim Senior Vice President of Communications of Brandeis. However, Jette did not respond by the time of publication.