Pitt’s U.S. News rankings and why they matter


Each year, colleges get put into rankings for everything from party schools to Ph.D. programs. Just this week, Pitt was included in lists for the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools,” Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Best Business Schools” and the big one — the annual U.S. News & World Report’s “Best National Universities.”


20: Top Public Schools

59: National Universities

7: Nursing

29: Best Colleges for Veterans

25: Biomedical

56: Best Undergraduate Engineering

49: Business Programs

60: Computer Science

Pitt came in 20th out of 209 public colleges and 59th out of 392 national universities in the U.S. News report. In both categories, Pitt dropped one place from 2020 after making big jumps in each in 2019. Pitt is tied with the University of Maryland and the University of Washington, and ranks just ahead of Penn State. Carnegie Mellon University was ranked 28th.

“This is a very important ranking for us,” Provost Ann Cudd said. “We don’t necessarily want to run our University just according to their metrics or anything like that, but we do regard their ranking as very important because families regard it as important, students regard it as important, and employers.”

Pitt’s highest ranking was for the best bachelor of science in nursing programs, where the University tied for 7th out of 694 schools with New York University and Oregon Health and Science University. “That is a huge brag point for us,” Cudd said.

Even though U.S. News gives some details on how the rankings are reached, Cudd said there’s a bit of a “secret sauce” to the methodology. This year, she said, there was “one confusing aspect of the methodology that changed. And that seems to be a place where we didn’t do as well.”

This area is called predictive graduation rates. Cudd said as she understands it, U.S. News officials look at a school’s incoming class and using several factors, which they don’t identify, predict how many of the students will graduate. Then that number is compared to actual graduation rates to see if the school exceeded or fell behind the prediction.

Another area that’s getting close scrutiny this year is what weight U.S. News gave to standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) as many schools, including Pitt, made them optional because of the pandemic.

Standardized tests count for 5 percent of the total score, which is the same as previous years, but U.S. News said that percentage was dropped by 15 percent if less than half of a school’s 2020 incoming class submitted test scores (the rankings are based on the previous year’s statistics).

At Pitt, 49.5 percent of the 4,928 incoming first-year students on the Pittsburgh campus did not submit an SAT or ACT score. The Common Application recently issued a report that said 43 percent of students submitted test scores this year.

Cudd said Pitt will remain test optional for the incoming classes of fall 2022 and 2023. “We’re still assessing how that’s going; what it means for our mix of students and what it means for our understanding of our students capacities as they come in,” she said. The University also is interested to see how going test optional affects diversity on campus.

Overall, the value of rankings depend, Cudd said, on how they “reflect our values and the things that we consider important.” Rankings that say whether someplace is the best place to get a specific degree, such as engineering or nursing, are more valuable, she said, “but the more the more it gets away from that and has more to do with sort of ephemeral, prestige markers, the less valuable, I think, it is for society.”

U.S. News made a very important change a year ago, Cudd said, when they removed the “selectivity” category.

“That’s just the number of people that you admitted, divided by the number who applied,” she said. “There are lots of ways to game that. It’s not about the output, the quality of what you’re offering or anything like that. That made me more much more cynical about the US news when they had selectivity in there. Now that that’s out, I think that was a very good change, and made their ranking more valid.”

Other rankings

Overall, U.S. News & World Report selected Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, MIT and Yale as the top five universities in the country. UCLA, UC Berkeley, Michigan and Virginia were the top rated public schools.

Two weeks ago, Forbes released its “America’s Top Colleges 2021” list and, for the first time, ranked a public college — Berkeley — at the top. Six more public schools were in the top 25. Only four public colleges made U.S. News’ top 25. Pitt ranked at 152nd.

The Forbes ranking reflects a change the magazine made in its methodology. “It isn’t enough to ask which schools give the best return on investment. It’s also important to evaluate what kind of students they educate and whether they make themselves accessible to those who can’t afford high sticker prices,” an article in Forbes about the listings said. “U.C. Berkeley does a much better job at this than does Harvard. At Berkeley, 27% of undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants, aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students pay for college. At Harvard, by contrast, the share of Pell students is just 12%.”

Bloomberg’s Best Business Schools list placed Pitt’s full-time MBA program at 41st overall, a jump of 13 spots, and 17th among public schools. It ranked 6th for diversity — a category added this year.

The Sierra Club’s Cool Schools’ rankings are based on the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’ Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). Pitt came in at 105 out of 328 schools.

And in case your curious, Pitt was 110th on the Top Party Schools list from Niche.com. Tulane, Florida State and Wisconsin topped the list. WVU and Penn State were ranked 10th and 11th, respectively. Niche also ranked Pitt 30th for top public universities in America.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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