The University of Chicago moved up six spots to number nine in U.S. News & World Report’s annual “America’s Best Colleges” rankings, released in August.
After the College lost its number-nine ranking from 2002 and fell as low as 15th last year, top University administrators decided to evaluate how information was being calculated and reported to the magazine.
Michael Behnke, vice president for University relations and dean of College enrollment, visited the magazine’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., along with Dean of the College John Boyer and Associate Provost Stephen Gabel.
“In discussing their methodology and some of the ways we were answering the questions, the magazine thought we were misinterpreting some things,” Behnke said, referring to the questionnaires that U.S. News sends to college administrators each year.
For instance, the University had not previously included its $15 million annual library expenses in its calculation of per-student spending, an error that hurt the College’s “financial resources” score and one that administrators corrected for this year.
“We hadn’t done a thorough examination of definitions at every stage of how we reported data,” Behnke said. “These questionnaires had been answered in different offices over the past years. The questionnaire is about 80 pages long. This year we followed up every data piece and asked each office how they derived it.”
The U of C lagged behind other schools in its efforts to improve rankings, Behnke said.
“My impression is that we’re about the last to do it,” he said in reference to his trip to the magazine’s headquarters. “Practically everybody has gone through this exercise.”
Nonetheless, both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the U of C’s efforts in a somewhat critical tone. The Tribune wrote that the University had “engineered” its “dramatic jump” into the magazine’s top 10 list.
“These [rankings] do get a lot of attention,” Behnke said. “I was saddened by the negative slant of some of the coverage, but not surprised.”
Princeton University took the top spot in the U.S. News rankings, with Harvard University and Yale University rounding out the top three.
Behnke said the University decided to act after several alumni voiced their frustration with their alma mater’s low ranking.
“Our culture is obsessed with rankings,” Behnke said. “We were getting complaints from alumni who said, ‘We’re not 15th, not based on our experience here.’ So we thought we should make more of an effort to represent ourselves fairly.”
Some alumni tried to take matters into their own hands. Paul Grana, a 2003 graduate, has thrown “10 for 10” fundraising parties in an effort to improve the University’s alumni-giving score. He and a former classmate requested that attendees donate at least $10 each to help get the University into the top 10 in the rankings.
“I did feel some pride to see the rankings moving up,” Grana said. “To be sure, there are a lot of factors that go into the rankings, and alumni participation is only one of those factors. Still, though, we had a banner year, particularly among young alumni.”
1,848 young alumni—those who have graduated within the last decade—made donations last year, nearly double the number from two years ago, said Adam Niermann, the assistant director for young alumni giving.
In addition to the U.S. News ranking, the University received another related accolade this summer. The Princeton Review ranked Chicago No. 1 in the nation for “Best Overall Academic Experience.”
Grana said he hopes the U.S. News ranking will one day come close to the top spot bestowed by the Princeton Review.
“I was relieved to see us moving up in the rankings, though I’m also hopeful that this isn’t the end of the move,” Grana said. “The bottom line is that we are an elite institution, and a No. 9 ranking should still feel low.”