The media pundits' and education executives' responses to the Governor’s call for a Kansas regents university to be in the top 50, and another in the top 100 have all been cheerleading: "We’re Number One! We’re Number One!" [or Number 50 would be okay too]. I have yet to see the commentary that has actually looked at the criteria for making the U.S. News and World Report list.
The criteria for scoring high in this university beauty pageant are readily accessible on their website at www.usnews.com. To pursue them would drive Kansas schools away from their teaching, research and service targeted to Kansas. The criteria are slightly different for Research I versus university-masters, but they follow a similar template.
"Peer assessment" is a survey of the perceptions of the university heads and has a huge bite (25 percent) of the rating. Academic leaders take Harvard and Princeton as the "model" and try to emulate that image—thus the Ivy League "beauty pageant" factor. Try getting into that club if you are a mere second tier "state university" or a land grant university with the mission of serving the agricultural extension needs of a rural population. Such a survey, if valid at all, should weigh no more than 5 percent.
"Student selectivity" is a major U.S. News and World Report factor. But Kansas was the last of the 50 states to maintain open admissions. Only in 2001 did Kansas high school seniors have to meet Qualified Admissions involving an ACT score of 21, a class ranking, and complete a minimal course curriculum. And each regent school has a 10 percent window to allow students who cannot make Qualified Admission standards to enter anyway. While most regents schools have to use most of that window, KU only uses a third of it, taking far fewer low-performing students. Other states have higher, sometimes dramatically higher, admissions standards. We have many Kansas students attempt college and drop out, who never belonged in college in the first place.
The "Ivy Leagues" can turn out the best because they only take the best. K.U. has indicated a desire to tighten admissions and the Governor has suggested higher admissions criteria. But Kansans have kept to a populist egalitarianism that wants every child to have a try at college.. We are unlikely to leapfrog in rank on U.S. News and World Report "selectivity."
"Faculty resources" consists of faculty pay, percent with terminal degree, full-time faculty, and class size factors—all "money issues." With Kansas in the midst of a budget crisis, none of these conditions are going to improve. The Governor has been rightly criticized for calling for a higher ranking at a time when the budget is going to drive those scores lower.
"Graduation and retention rates" are also big factors in the U.S. News and World Report ranking. Looks like faculty need to inflate grades about 20 percent to raise that score. Since Kansas universities are admitting higher numbers of students who are not college prepared, inflating grades merely erodes the value of a U.S. degree down the road. But we could brag for a few years in the short run.
Kansans know their regents universities and we need our schools for Kansas reasons. KU has many excellent graduate programs as well as pharmacy program. K-State conducts agricultural research and serves extension needs and has many other excellent programs as well. For aviation and aeronautical engineering, Wichita State is exceptional. Kansas schools have looked to Emporia State for solid face-to-face teacher training, recognized by a professional audit as not in the top 100 or top 50, but in the top 4 nationwide! None of these weigh into the U.S. News and World Report criteria. Even in the best of economic times, chasing after their beauty pageant title diverts our university resources away from being what Kansas needs.