University of Iowa, Northern Iowa slip in U.S. News national rankings

Iowa State makes gains in new U.S. News best colleges list

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — As competition surges for a shrinking pool of college-bound students in the Midwest — further propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic that’s bumped some off the higher education track for now — the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa have lost some ground in newly released U.S. News & World Report rankings.

The 2021 rankings — which many college-bound students refer to while searching for a collegiate home and which Iowa university leaders often cite in appealing for state funding — have the UI tied for No. 88 among national universities and tied for No. 34 among public schools nationally.

That No. 34 placement holds the UI steady among public institution rankings, but the Iowa City school’s overall national rank slipped from No. 84, erasing most of the gains it made last year when it bumped up the list from No. 89. Iowa State University, meanwhile, improved its standing among national universities overall by reaching No. 118, up from No. 121 last year and No. 119 the year before — although still shy of the No. 115 and No. 111 rankings it had achieved in the two years before.

The ISU public ranking improved just one from No. 55 to No. 54.

UNI, ranked among Midwest schools and not nationally, held steady at No. 2 among Midwest publics and dropped from No. 20 overall in the Midwest to No. 24.

U.S. News, which in its 36th edition evaluated more than 1,400 colleges and universities on 17 indicators of academic quality, released new rankings this morning not just of the top U.S. campuses overall and by geography but by program, services and value, among other things.

The UI saw among its biggest slides in the “best value” category, dropping from No. 76 last year to No. 108 this year. ISU improved in the value category from No. 101 to No. 91.

Data that U.S. News used for its 2021 rankings came from before the coronavirus pandemic — which has compelled widespread changes across higher education, from the campus experience to the method of instruction to the cost.

For some students, the pandemic has meant a delayed degree. For some institutions, it has meant budget cuts, faculty and staff elimination and programmatic losses.

The UI and ISU had been systematically increasing tuition before the pandemic, which prompted the Board of Regents to freeze rates — at least for this fall.

All the pandemic-propelled changes could permeate future U.S. News rankings by affecting nearly every metric it considers — including graduation and retention rates, student debt, faculty and financial resources, student excellence and alumni giving.

U.S. News annually re-evaluates its ranking methodology to ensure it addresses important issues facing students and families, according to a news release. This year’s methodology added two ranking indicators measuring student debt — the average amount of accumulated federal loan debt among undergraduate borrowers; and the percent of full-time undergrads who took out federal loans.

The rankings this year also put more weight on outcomes — including graduation and retention rates and social mobility.

The UI earned a graduation and retention rank of 120, well below many of its peers — like the University of Michigan, which ranked No. 21; the University of California-Los Angeles, which ranked No. 26; the University of North Carolina, which ranked No. 28; and the University of Wisconsin, which ranked. No. 41.

ISU’s graduation and retention rank was 115. Its average first-year retention rate was 88 percent, compared with 86 percent at the UI and percentages in the upper 90s for UCLA, UNC, Michigan and others.

Weights in the U.S. News rankings for SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing and alumni giving were reduced this year.


The list’s top three universities nationally this year are Princeton, Harvard and Columbia. Its top three public universities are UCLA, UC-Berkeley and Michigan.

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