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September 28, 2023

UConn ranked as top university in reports. What does it mean?

Peter Morenus/UConn Photo UConn's Storrs campus.

The University of Connecticut has fared well in college rankings released this month, coming in at No. 26 in the U.S. News & World Report’s list of public universities in the country and cracking the top 50 in The Wall Street Journal’s ranking of both private and public institutions.

But how much do these rankings matter? And what’s the difference?

Many say the rankings, no matter how they’re arrived at, are only a part of the story.

“I think a higher rating gives parents a sense of confidence. … When you have things like strong graduation rates, people graduating on time, affordability, a high ranking of graduate salaries — this makes parents feel like ‘OK, my kid’s going to graduate in time, I know what to expect. They’re going to be able to get a job.’ They look at those kinds of things as a return on investment,” said Vicki Boudin, who works as a college admissions consultant at College Docs, which is based in Fairfield.

But Boudin cautioned that a ranking is just a "piece of the puzzle" when making a decision about which college to attend.

"It's really important that people don't rely solely on [rankings] because so much important information can be missed that goes into deciding on a best fit for each student," Boudin said. "We have to look at things like, do they offer specialty programs? The diversity ... the environment, how about how kids with learning differences [are served]?"

Joan Casey, president of Educational Advocates College Consulting, has helped students find the right higher education institutions for nearly two decades. Casey said college rankings often sway toward reputation, rather than what the school could really offer.

"I just think that human nature is such that people look at rankings, and they don't necessarily take the time to look at the methodology. They kind of just take it for granted sometimes, so that can be a big problem," Casey said. "Those numbers don't completely tell the story."

In the U.S. News & World Report ranking released last week, UConn retained its No. 26 rank, down from 23rd in 2020 and 20th in 2016.

The ranking's methodology is based on almost 20 factors, including ratings by academic peers (20% of the ranking), graduation rates (16%), average student debt, research citations and faculty salaries. For this year's ranking, they also removed a handful of indicators including class size and alumni giving.

The ranking from U.S. News & World Report comes two weeks after The Wall Street Journal said the university was a top 50 school after it transitioned to a methodology this year that's weighted mostly by student outcomes, specifically how a college boosts its graduates' salaries compared to other colleges. It also takes into account learning environment and diversity.

“While we know that rankings cannot capture all aspects of UConn’s many strengths, we are pleased that the University continues to be recognized so positively and consistently for its indicators of student success,” said UConn President Radenka Maric. “We want our students to embark on their careers with an education that prepares them to build fulfilling and happy lives through creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence, and critical life skills such as financial literacy.”

In both reports, Yale University was the only Connecticut-based higher education institution to rank higher than UConn. Yale was rated No. 5 in the U.S. News & World Report ranking and No. 3 in the Journal’s report.

Across New England, Connecticut also out-ranked neighboring state flagship universities, including the universities of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts-Amherst and Rhode Island.

Other Connecticut schools were ranked in different lists that U.S. News & World Report produced. The lists are grouped by schools that share similar characteristics, such as their program offerings and regional location.

As such, UConn was not compared directly with Wesleyan, for example. UConn is part of the National Universities list, which includes schools that offer undergraduate, master's and doctoral programs along with an emphasis on faculty research. Wesleyan is part of the National Liberal Arts Colleges list, which includes schools that focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the arts and sciences.

Both Casey and Boudin said college rankings are often more important to the universities themselves and parents, rather than students — who often care more about the feeling they get from a school and the type of experience they'll get.

"The truth is, it's very hard to rank colleges," Casey said, adding that certain factors like starting salaries could be deceiving. "I think that colleges [instead] could be more transparent and share more information about what's happening [at their campuses, like], their financial health [and] their admissions policies."

And though Casey and Boudin were critical of the rankings, they said it easily offers some insight, or a starting place, for students to find the right fit and for colleges to take value in other metrics.

Graduation rates and performance for Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students make up 11% of the rankings for schools in the National University list. Pell Grants are awards from the U.S. Department of Education to low-income students.

"It is good that they're paying attention to first gen and how Pell Grant recipients are supported. I think that's good if it makes colleges pay attention to those populations, and that could be a really good thing for our country and our world to move toward more fairness," Casey said.

UConn's share of Pell Grant students in the 2020-21 entering class was 22%, tied at a rank of 100 with other schools such as Harvard and UCLA, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

"I think that there's some value to ratings but we [need to] look at a whole lot of other factors because I think that's only one dimension," Boudin said.

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