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College Rankings a Mixed Bag for Texas Universities

Depending on whom you ask, the University of Texas is either the 45th best university in the country, or the 186th. Texas A&M? Either the 58th or the 178th. College rankings are pervasive, highly variable — and controversial.

Texas A&M University, the University of Texas and Rice University

Depending on whom you ask, the University of Texas is either the 45th best university in the country, or the 186th. Texas A&M University is either the 58th, or it's the 178th. The practice of ranking colleges and universities has become pervasive, but interpreting them can be difficult since no two publications take the same approach.

Today, U.S. News & World Report released its annual list, arguably the most influential (and one of the most controversial, particularly among university administrators). Here's a sampling of how Texas institutions fared on the list of best national universities: Rice University is 17th, UT is 45th, A&M is 58th, Southern Methodist University is 62nd, Baylor University is 75th, Texas Christian University is 97th, University of Texas-Dallas is 143rd and Texas Tech University is 160th. 

For those keeping score, that's a bump up in the rankings for A&M, Baylor and TCU (from 63rd, 79th, and 99th, respectively). The rankings of UT, Rice, and UT-Dallas stayed level from last year. And SMU and Texas Tech both dropped slightly (from 56th and 159th).

It's a big difference, for example, from the recent rankings from Forbes, in which UT was 186th, A&M was 178th, SMU was 123rd, the private University of Dallas was 103rd, and Rice was 28th. Different still are the rankings from Washington Monthly, which put A&M at 15th, UT at 19th, Rice at 22nd and Baylor at 80th. Others putting out college rankings include Newsweek, QS, Gawker (sort of), and many others.

No matter which ranking system one prefers, they all require a fair amount of work on the part of the universities being ranked. David Wenger, director of public affairs for UT's McCombs School of Business, said his office responds to about 30 different rankers, each with its own methodology, over the course of a year.

"It's a massive amount of information, all of which has to be somewhat customized," he said, noting that one member of his team spends about 60 percent of his time focused on the task.

Richard Vedder, the Ohio University economist who does the Forbes undergraduate rankings, said of the U.S. News approach, "Theirs is based more on inputs used to produce educational services, such as class size, salaries of professors, percentage of alums giving money, as well as on reputation. Ours is very much outcomes based, especially student satisfaction and post-gradation success of students in a vocational sense of the word."

Washington Monthly, meanwhile, ranks universities based on "their contribution to the public good" in the areas of social mobility, research and service.

Sometimes the ranking process can get contentious. Of Texas' performance in his rankings, Vedder said, "It's not a picture of distinction. It's a picture of a number of high-quality schools that are not quite in the top ranks." It's an analysis that is unlikely to be received warmly by those that criticized a report by Vedder from earlier in the year contending that UT-Austin faculty members are not particularly productive.

After Vedder's rankings came out, Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for one such group — the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education — wrote in UT's alumni magazine, The Alcalde, “Mr. Vedder continues to do Texas, our universities, and the citizens of our state a disservice by completely disregarding the positive and proactive efforts our universities are continually undertaking in their drive to deliver excellence and quality in higher education.”

(Some tried to cry foul, since The Alcalde simultaneously trumpeted Forbes' 17th-in-the-nation ranking of the McCombs School of Business. But Vedder has nothing to do with the business school rankings.)

As for the U.S. News method, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes recently told legislators, "The only thing I pay attention to [in them] is peer assessment. I don't think the other metrics U.S. News & World Report uses are accurate or meaningful." Earlier this year, in an interview with the Tribune, former UT dean John Silber argued that the U.S. News rankings are "so bogus, so dishonest, so fundamentally fraudulent that you fight against an impossible situation."

Wenger said it was "almost impossible" to accurately rank something as complex as an academic institution, but given the influence of college rankings, they must be attended to. "People do watch the rankings and make conclusions based on the rankings," he said. "Those conclusions are not always an accurate reflection of what really matters. In a way, that doesn't matter. You can't just ignore them because you disagree with the methodology."

Even when rankings go a school's way one year, the institutions must not rest on their laurels, because others are trying to unseat them. "We always hope to improve in the rankings," A&M spokesman Jason Cook told the Tribune before today's U.S. News release.

Indeed, A&M ended up cracking the top 20 public universities in the nation for the first time. It is tied for 19th, while UT is 13th. In a statement, A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said he was “pleased to see Texas A&M advance in the rankings and break into the top 20 among the nation’s public universities, while maintaining our lofty status of balancing value and quality of education."

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