UVA: Room for improvement despite high rankings

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The University of Virginia has received high marks from Forbes Magazine and U.S. News & World Report on both magazines’ annual list of top U.S. colleges. Despite differing methodologies, the two publications ranked UVA similarly: The University came in at 36 on Forbes’ top 100 and 25 on U.S. News’. While they acknowledge that the lists are closely watched, experts and administrators alike have downplayed the importance of the rankings.

Forbes and U.S. News & World Report use different strategies to rank schools, according to their own reports. Forbes weighs “post-graduate success” above all else, determining alumni salaries and listings in Who’s Who in America and the American Leaders List. Forbes also considers “student satisfaction,” which is measured by professor reviews and student retention rates.

U.S. News takes an entirely different approach, focusing more on academic reputation and selectivity, which Forbes disregards. In fact, U.S. News’ calculations place the most weight on reputation as determined by surveys of college counselors and peer-school administrators. Faculty resources and graduation rates also play a role, as does the amount a university spends per pupil.

American Council for Education Vice President Terry Hartle said UVA received relatively little state funding to spend on each in-state student in comparison to virtually every other public university in the country—a fact UVA President Teresa Sullivan has frequently pointed out in interviews. But Hartle said, despite relatively low state support, the University is clearly doing something right.

“UVA, regardless of where its money comes from, is a first-class institution,” he said.

Hartle noted that the Forbes list contains 11 schools ahead of UVA that U.S. News categories would not include—so if the list compared apples to apples and disregarded schools like West Point, Williams, and Wellesley, UVA would come in at number 25 on both lists.

The fact that UVA was ranked so highly on both lists, Hartle said, reflects its status as a “world-class institution any way you measure it.” But while both lists could be seen as arbitrary, he said that intellectually, he likes what Forbes tries to do, and thinks it has a better theoretical approach.

“Unfortunately, the data isn’t really that valid or reliable in my opinion,” he said.

According to Hartle, the average age of alumni surveyed for the Forbes list is 50, meaning they’ve been out of school for about 30 years. So a school that was great a generation ago, he said, could have fallen on hard times recently and still received high rankings. Similarly, if an institution has dramatically improved over the last 25 years, surveying middle-aged alumni may not be entirely accurate.

At any rate, Hartle said a college that finds itself on the Forbes list is a top-notch school.
UVA has also downplayed the importance of the rankings. University spokesperson Carol Wood called the rankings “one tool for helping make sure we’re on the right track,” but said there are other measures by which to judge success, including the number of UVA alumni finding jobs in their fields of choice, the strength of the faculty, the quality of the hospital’s medical care and the success of researchers.

President Sullivan said in a UVA Today report following the release of the Forbes list that, despite being flattering, the Forbes list shouldn’t hinder the University’s desire to grow.

“It’s rewarding, of course, to rank highly,” she said. “But we’re mindful that you can’t ever stop looking for improvements and you can’t get comfortable with where you are today.”

Katy Nelson assisted with reporting on this story.

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