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Published September 16, 2013, 09:02 AM

Ranking report ‘not apples to apples’

UND continued its fall in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings, as the magazine released its 2014 figures this week.

By: Robb Jeffries, Grand Forks Herald

UND continued its fall in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings, as the magazine released its 2014 figures this week.

U.S. News ranked UND No. 97 of all public institutions in the “national universities” category, which is the category that includes schools that “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and Ph.D. programs.” UND was ranked No. 94 last year. UND also fell three spots in the overall university rankings, which includes private universities, and has dropped nine spots on that list since 2012.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the variation in the magazine’s methodology makes it difficult to make comparisons between schools from year to year.

“We take it with a bit of a grain of salt, to be honest,” he said. “It’s tough to use it as a barometer because of those changes. It’s not completely apples to apples, but it’s not apples to oranges, either. It’s more like comparing McIntosh and Granny Smith apples.”

The region’s other large public universities did not fare well, either. North Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota tied at 108th for public national universities, and South Dakota State University was 117th.

It is difficult to pinpoint reasons for a particular school’s rise or drop in the rankings. The weight put on different criteria differs from year to year, and each individual school may gain or lose ground in each of the grading criterion. Furthermore, some schools might not submit data at all one year and participate the next year, changing the number of schools evaluated on a yearly basis.

Spokespeople from North Dakota and South Dakota research universities said the rankings aren’t the important part; rather, the fact that the list provides exposure to a broad audience is what has the bigger schools excited.

“For us, it’s a matter of getting our name known on the national level,” said USD spokeswoman Tena Haraldson. “It brings us some attention to a part of the country a lot of people don’t know much about. We want to be rated with the other major public and private universities in the country.”

She said the U.S. News rankings help schools like USD compare itself to competitors.

“The criteria has changed, and it has wandered around while they’ve been doing (the rankings),” Haraldson said. “Apparently, no matter how they rank it, we are up there holding our own against our regional competitors. Being included in the U.S. News ranking does give us a chance to get our name out there. Whether we go up a few spots or down a few spot, it doesn’t affect us as much.”

Smaller did better

Unlike their larger counterparts, many of the region’s smaller colleges and universities received high marks in the U.S. News rankings.

The University of Minnesota, Crookston, was No. 1 in the “Midwest top public regional colleges” category for 2014, up one spot from 2013. Crookston has consistently received high marks from U.S. News, as this is the 16th consecutive year the school has placed in the top four.

“We were very excited when we heard we moved up to the top spot,” said UMC spokesman Andrew Svec.

Two North Dakota schools, Valley City State University and Mayville State University, also ranked in the top five in the same category.

Svec credits UMC’s consistently high ranking to the staff and faculty’s effort to help students.

“You have to be a bit philosophical about it,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to provide the best education and experience we can. In the last few years, we have been focusing on student support. It hasn’t been by accident that we moved up to the top spot; there has been a conscious effort by our staff and faculty to provide students with the best possible experience we can give them.”

Grading methods

Since U.S. News’ methodology changes from year to year, some question the ranking’s usefulness for making year-to-year comparisons. For instance, U.S. News reduced the amount of consideration given to high school class rank and gave more emphasis to SAT and ACT scores.

The greater emphasis on standardized test scores “probably has something to do with it,” VCSU spokesman Greg Vanney said of his school’s drop from No. 1 in its category in 2013 to second. “Because we are looking at a wide range of factors for admitting our students, we look for students who will succeed in a university setting, not in spite of their test score, but with other factors considered.”

At the end of the day, many school officials thought the numbers are just numbers, and don’t fully reflect the core of their schools.

“The important question to answer is ‘How can we do the best we can for our students?’ ” Johnson said. “And if that means we do better with our rankings, then so be it, but that’s not the motivating factor behind it.”

“In general, if you want to look beyond the numbers, (our ranking) reflects that we are well-managed and we care a lot about our product, which is educating our students,” Vanney said. “We’re proud of the rankings, but we’re more proud of our programs and people. They measure numbers, but they don’t measure the heart and soul of the school.”

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