There’s Only One Public University in the ‘U.S. News’ Top 20

Your local state school isn’t No. 1, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth attending.

The University of California, Berkeley. (Photo: Flickr)

Sep 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Princeton, Harvard, and Yale—’tis the season for U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of the best universities in the nation, and as usual, that trio of private, Ivy League institutions took the top three spots. What’s missing from the top 10—or even from the top 15? Public universities.

Peruse the annual rankings, which were released on Wednesday, and you won’t see the name of a public institution of higher education until you get to the 20th spot: the University of California, Berkeley. But does this mean your local state school is in terrible shape and should be avoided at all costs? Not necessarily.

To arrive at the annual rankings, which, according to U.S. News, are designed to assist “families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money,” the magazine evaluates about 1,800 colleges and universities across the country using 16 criteria. Academic reputation is 22.5 percent of the score—can any school ever beat the Ivies at that game?—and graduation and retention rates are about 30 percent of the total ranking score. Another factor is how much cash a school has on hand, and public institutions hard hit by state budget cuts since the Great Recession are at a distinct disadvantage there.

Under the faculty resources category (20 percent of the total ranking score), schools are evaluated according to class size. Having more classes with fewer than 20 students—which is rarer at a cash-strapped public university—contributes to a higher score. When it comes to financial resources (10 percent of the score), “Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services” is the explanation for how the rankings are achieved.

RELATED: Why a Kid Chose a State School Over Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

Private schools can afford to be generous because their tuition averages $31,000 a year, while tuition at a public institution averages significantly less—$9,000 a year. Private schools can also rely on large endowments and gifts to help fund the education of a few thousand students. But large, public state schools, which were created to educate tens of thousands of students, are at the mercy of state legislators.

In May, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported, “Forty-seven states—all except Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2014–15 school year than they did at the start of the recession.” Public universities have also cut staff and eliminated programs in the past few years at a level unimaginable at a school such as Harvard.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for example, is ranked 187 among national universities. But keep in mind that it’s hard for Greensboro to move up the U.S. News rankings when the school “has eliminated 390 class sections, or about 6 percent of its course offerings, to counteract a $4 million budget cut,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

(Photo: Flickr; Data: U.S. News)

As for Berkeley, its top-20 status could be in jeopardy. Funding for the school dropped 25 percent during the recession, and it seems the campus has not fully recovered. John Wilton, vice chancellor for undergraduate education at the university, told a panel in February that rather than make more budget cuts, the 2014–15 school year was “the third year in a row of running the campus at a deficit”—a decision that is eating up the school’s savings.

The school seems aware that given its financial challenges, it’s going to be increasingly tough to maintain its ranking.

“UC-Berkeley does very well on just about every ranking, except for U.S. News,” Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “We compete for undergraduates very successfully (against all of the top 20 schools) and offer great programs for them, but the metrics for the U.S. News ranking seem ill suited to reflect our excellence, or for that matter any of the great flagship publics.”

There are plenty of haters of the U.S. News rankings out there, but anxious parents of high school students—and college staffers—pay close attention to them. As long as these sorts of funding disparities exist, it’s key to remember that pitting comparatively broke public state schools against well-off private universities probably isn’t an apples-to-apples game.