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Notre Dame nabs 19th in rankings

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, August 31, 2007

US News and World Report recently placed Notre Dame in a tie for 19th in its 2008 rankings of the country’s best colleges – one spot up from a No. 20 ranking last year.

The rankings, published annually by US News and World Report, put Notre Dame in a tie with Vanderbilt. Princeton, Harvard and Yale occupy the first three spots on the list.

Assistant Vice President for News and Information Dennis Brown said the University is pleased with the top-20 ranking, but added that Notre Dame has “always had reservations about the methodology that is used in the rankings.”

US News and World Report collects data from universities to compile the rankings. The data include the retention and graduation rate for each college, the average freshman retention rate, the selectivity of admissions, class size, the academic credentials of incoming students and the number of faculty members. Those factors account for 75 percent of the school’s ranking.

The remaining 25 percent of a school’s score is determined by a peer assessment review, in which the president, provost and dean of admissions of a school evaluate the academic programs offered by other colleges, including its own.

This factor in the rankings, Brown said, makes the survey less precise.

“[Most presidents, provosts and deans of admission] only know really a handful of schools in terms of how good they are,” Brown said. “To ask them to evaluate several hundred institutions is not very practical.”

Brown said Notre Dame belongs in the top 20, but said he thought Notre Dame could be placed higher on the list.

“It is interesting to us that among the top 25 schools we had the lowest peer assessment score, and we are not quite sure why that is,” Brown said. “That is one thing that probably weighs us down a little bit.”

But Notre Dame did advance one spot on the list since last year, a shift Brown attributed to several factors. A change in the University’s computer system allowed Notre Dame to report a larger percentage of full-time faculty members, creating a more consistent record of the faculty population.

Brown also noted revisions in federal reporting guidelines that updated the way faculty were counted as either full-time or part-time.

The large number of applicants for the Class of 2011, with 14,500 applicants for fewer than 2,000 spots, also improved Notre Dame’s rating in the selectivity and acceptance rate categories, Brown said.

In an additional US News ranking of schools with the lowest acceptance rates, Notre Dame, with a 27 percent acceptance rate, was one of the most competitive schools in the country.

“A little bit here and a little bit there, and you nudge yourself up a bit,” Brown said.

A little bit of nudging goes on in the registrar’s office as well. Harold Pace, the University registrar, said the ranking system does sometimes influence class size decisions.

US News factors into its rankings the percentage of classes at a school with fewer than 20 students and the percentage of classes with more than 50 students. Schools get better scores with smaller classes and lower scores with a higher number of bigger classes.

Pace tries to keep classes under 20 and under 50, if he can, so students might notice that they frequently have classes of 19 or 49.

“If there is a class that is taught and a department has suggested a class size of 20, we will see if that would also work for 19,” Pace said. “And in the same way, the other cut-offs, just for that consideration.”

But if a department or dean would rather have a larger class size, Pace said, then the University will allow the class to be taught with 20 students, for example, rather than 19.

Notre Dame does try to increase its score in the report, Brown said, but always takes the rankings “with a grain of salt.”

“In some ways, we can argue that universities all have such unique missions and constraints and weaknesses that to try to numerically rank them is not even credible in some ways, but US News chooses to do that, and certainly parents and prospective students use that tool,” he said.

On its Web site, Notre Dame lists its distinguished rankings, including its status as a top-25 school in the US News rankings, on its “About Notre Dame” page.

Both observations and Admissions office research show students and their parents are “not fixated” on rankings, said Assistant Provost for Admissions Dan Saracino.

“If you are ranked in the top 20, it affirms you are one of the top schools in the country,” Saracino said. “But a student is not going to select a school that is 17th over one that is 19th … for that reason. Because there are a lot of other reasons.”

Freshman Kellie Sciacca went through the college search process not long ago but said she didn’t look at rankings when she decided to apply, and later enroll, at Notre Dame. What attracted her to the school, she said, was the “academic prestige.”

“Everyone knows Notre Dame is a great school,” she said.

Does she think No. 19 is an accurate rank for Notre Dame?

“I think it should be ranked higher, but obviously I’m biased because I really like this place.”

Senior Katie Miller was glad that Notre Dame had moved up in the rankings but said that even if it dropped dramatically, the school would still get a huge applicant pool.

“I think there is so much more about Notre Dame that is attractive other than just their ranking,” she said.

Seniors like Miller may soon appreciate Notre Dame’s high ranking a lot more when they begin to look for jobs. Lee Svete, the director of the Career Center, which was itself ranked second in the country by The Princeton Review, said he thinks employers are starting to look more closely at the rankings when they decide where to recruit.

Svete cited BusinessWeek, which listed the Mendoza School of Business seventh in the country in its 2007 rankings of undergraduate business programs. That, Svete said, is an “extra selling point” for companies to recruit Notre Dame graduates.

“I don’t think it makes or breaks a deal, but I think it’s an added bonus to be in the top 10,” he said.

For the past six years, US News and World Report has also published a list of schools that have “outstanding examples of academic programs that are believed to lead to student access,” according to the magazine’s Web site.

Notre Dame’s First Year of Studies, its International Study program and service learning offerings are all recognized in the unranked lists. Notre Dame also was ranked 20th out of 50 schools with the best values. The ranking was determined based on the percentage receiving need-based grants, the average school cost after the grant and the average discount from the total cost of attending the college.