September 5, 2003

Cornell Stays at No. 14 in U.S. News Rankings

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For the third straight year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Cornell as the 14th-best university in the country, despite an improvement in some of the key figures reported by the administration. Harvard and Princeton topped the list, while the other Ivies were also in similar positions as last year.

Yale placed third, the University of Pennsylvania was fifth, Dartmouth was ninth, Columbia 11th and Brown 17th.

In 1999, Cornell ranked sixth. Since then, different weighting of the ranking criteria has dropped the University out of the top ten. The rankings continue to strongly influence where high school students choose to apply despite many in higher education who have criticized college guides that use them.

“The rankings do matter, because they are self-reinforcing,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations, director of Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute and also the former vice president for academic programs, planning and budgeting.

“A school that moves up in the rankings, other factors held constant, receives more applications, has more students accept its offers of admission and is able to bring students in with somewhat less generous financial aid packages,” Ehrenberg said.

While Cornell’s numbers for the magazine’s key categories, such as faculty salaries, spending per student, student test scores and student-faculty ratio, have improved, they have gone up at a slower rate compared to some of its peer institutions.

“We’re not getting better [in the U.S. News categories] at the rate our competitors are,” Ehrenberg said.

This year, instead of simply dividing total students by the total number of faculty, Cornell computed a 9:1 student-faculty ratio by including only undergraduates and faculty who teach undergraduates. According to Linda Grace-Kobas, interim vice president for communications and media relations, this change conforms to how peer institutions compute their respective student-faculty ratios. Last year’s ratio, under the old computation, was 13:1.

“It’s interesting to see how the numbers play out,” Grace-Kobas said, noting that the U.S. News methodology has become more consistent in recent years.

Factors like faculty composition can dramatically affect the U.S. News numbers, Ehrenberg noted. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, trails Cornell slightly in its academic reputation score but is the number-one university in the faculty resources category, compared to Cornell’s 22nd spot.

At least part of this might be explained by Penn’s higher average salary, which is the most important factor in computing faculty resources. Since Pennsylvania has 278 business faculty and 51 law faculty, compared to Cornell’s respective 50 and 32, the large difference may be partially explained simply by having a greater proportion of professors in higher-paying fields.

The real problem with the rankings, Ehrenberg said, “is the notion that you can add up all the characteristics and come up with a single number.”

Cornell students, for the most part, recalled paying little attention to college rankings when applying to universities.

“It mattered to my family,” said Jennifer Robinson ’06, “but I applied to schools whose academic reputation I was familiar with, but not because of rankings.”

Theresa Hsu ’07 said general rankings “didn’t matter at all” when she chose to study engineering at Cornell. “There’s a lot more that matters to me,” Hsu said.

Archived article by Dan Galindo