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Crunching the Numbers

If you saw the rankings of “Best Colleges” released by U.S. News & World Report this week, you’re probably wondering how they tabulated the scores and why NC State dropped 23 places this year on the list of national universities.

We asked the folks in University Planning and Analysis to give us a peek at some of the “indicators of academic excellence” that form the basis for the rankings. The data they sent us provide some fascinating insights into the process. Be aware that the data reported in each year’s survey are not drawn from that academic year but from one or more previous years, depending on the category.

NC State was ranked 111th on this year’s list of 262 national universities (52nd among 164 public universities). That’s down from 88th place last year (39th among public universities). The change is surprising since NC State’s position on the list has been fairly consistent over time, hovering around 85th for the past seven years.

Even more surprising is the fact that the university’s overall score hasn’t actually changed much. This year NC State scored 40 points. By comparison, the university score 42 points in 2008 and 43 points in 2007. Criteria such as graduation rate, retention, student/faculty ratio, reputation and SAT scores have either improved or remained flat over the past few years.

What did change was the way U.S. News tabulated the scores, giving more weight to graduation rate performance and less weight to peer assessments. That may seem like a small change, but it was enough to help Harvard reclaim its position at the top of the list.

By the way, don’t confuse graduation rate with graduation rate performance. Graduation rate is the actual percentage of students who graduate within six years. At NC State that’s 70 percent, up from 63 percent in 2004.

Graduation rate performance, which is more heavily weighted this year, is the difference between a school’s actual graduation rate and its expected graduation rate. Since U.S. News expected NC State’s graduation rate to be 75 percent and it was 70 percent,  the university took a hit. In the past, NC State has usually performed as expected or better in this category. In 2007, for example, the expected graduation rate was just 67 percent but the actual rate was 71 percent, boosting NC State’s score.

The formula U.S. News uses to arrive at the expected graduation rate is secret, but it’s based on test scores and institutional resources, according to the magazine.

Speaking of money, a number of financial indicators play a large part in the scoring, including faculty resources, financial ranking and alumni giving. Together, these account for 35 percent of the overall score. At NC State, the economic downturn has impacted all three. In fact, the university’s financial resources position is 85th this year, down from  72nd place in 2004.

Areas where NC State has seen improvement, such as selectivity and the academic qualifications of incoming freshman, are relatively less important factors in the rankings, accounting for 15 percent of the overall score.

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