WSU’s task force on U.S. News rankings issues report

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A Washington State University task force trying to better understand how U.S. News and World Report arrives at its annual Best Colleges Rankings is recommending keeping an eye on the outlet’s key metrics as well as a continued commitment to the success of the land-grant mission.

Although the task force was created following concern among faculty and others about WSU’s recent declines in the magazine’s highly popular rankings, the recommendations are intended to help identify areas where continued support can help bolster the university system’s historic role. Those kinds of commitments, along with more transparent data sharing, could potentially be reflected in better outcomes in the U.S. News’ annual assessments as well.

“My hope is that as an institution, we can use this analysis to really think about what’s important to us after taking the time to understand the shifting metrics that go into a U.S. News ranking,” Stephanie Kane, interim executive director of Institutional Research within the Office of Strategy, Planning and Analysis, said. “We’re actively working to improve graduation rates and narrow achievement gaps between different student demographics not because it will bolster our rankings, but because it’s part of our land grant mission to provide access to a high-quality education.”

Continuing to follow U.S. News’ evolving rankings methodology, addressing salary inequalities among faculty systemwide, developing a marketing plan that targets higher education leaders who make peer assessments for the rankings, and surveying WSU’s audiences to better understand who following U.S. News’ annual assessments, were among the more than a dozen recommendations made in the report.

The complete report is now available to read in-full on the Office of Strategy, Planning and Analysis’ website.

Fluctuations in the metrics used for the ranking as well as how much weight they have on the final determination of a university’s score make it difficult for universities to truly know how they will do in a given year, the task force found. Relatively benign factors, such as including career-track faculty salaries as part of the average faculty salary data, can result in declines compared to peers. There’s also the fact that, while WSU’s scores have been relatively consistent in recent years, US News is evaluating more colleges as part of their rankings, meaning WSU’s ranking can drop even if its score doesn’t. 

While members found no conclusive evidence that WSU’s placement in the ranking correlated with first-year student enrollment, it’s likely that students and families evaluating college options come across them in the process. That, coupled with the fact that colleges are assessed whether or not they actively submit data to U.S. News, means WSU will continue to supply data to US News and track how the university fares.

“The rankings give students and families one piece of information, but activities like the New Coug Orientation program, visiting campuses, and conversing with faculty and alumni are all important factors influencing the decision of whether or not to attend WSU,” Brian French, co-chair of the task force, said.

WSU President Kirk Schulz announced the formation of the task force in a letter to the university community in April. Its members included representatives from Faculty Senate, Institutional Research, the Provost Office, and the Office of Research, among other departments.

For more information on the university’s rankings, visit the Office of Strategy, Planning, and Analysis’ website.

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