University of Iowa slips in U.S. News rankings

UI President Bruce Harreld says state funding cuts behind 'risk of becoming an average university'

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. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

When University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld presents at Board of Regents meetings, he talks about his institution’s U.S. News & World Report rankings.

When he boasts about Iowa to alumni during Rotary luncheons, he cites the rankings. When he makes his annual legislative pitch for more money at the Statehouse, Harreld’s PowerPoint presentation includes the university’s rankings.

And, according to new U.S. News rankings released Monday, UI is slipping.

Where the UI last year saw a slight increase among public universities from No. 33 to No. 31, it slid to No. 38 on the 2019 list. Where it climbed four spots last year from No. 82 to No. 78 among all national universities — including public and private schools — it dropped to No. 89 this year.

The slide comes after a rough year of more state funding cuts, which have ratcheted down support for the Board of Regents by $35 million from the start of the 2017 budget year. Late-year reductions for the budget year that ended June 30 prompted Harreld to freeze faculty pay, halt new campus construction for five months, end some scholarship programs and close several centers he said are not core to the university’s mission.

The UI, like at Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, this fall also upped tuition for all students, including students in costlier programs and resident undergraduates.

Iowa is not alone in reporting a drop in the rankings, with its sister institution in Ames tying for No. 56 among public universities — down from No. 53 last year and No. 51 the year prior. Among all of the magazine’s 312 ranked universities, Iowa State tied for No. 119 in the list’s newest iteration, down from No. 115 overall last year and No. 111 the year before.

In 2015, Iowa State ranked No. 108 nationally and No. 47 among public universities — meaning it’s fallen about 10 spots since that time.

The University of Northern Iowa, which is not ranked nationally overall or among public universities, held steady in this year’s ranking of Midwest institutions — at No. 25 overall and No. 2 among public schools.

And, for UI’s part, it’s not reporting substantive declines in many of the metrics used to evaluate schools. Its first-year retention rate held steady at 86 percent, for example, and its six-year graduation rate actually improved from 72 percent to 74 percent, according to university reports.

The U.S. News rankings give 35 percent weight to student outcomes — including graduation and retention rates. But the university’s peers — those research institutions it competes with and compares to, like the universities of Michigan and California Los Angeles — saw more improvement, with Iowa now 20 spots below its peer average ranking of 18 among public universities. Last year it was 12 spots below.

Among all national universities, the UI was 21 spots below its peer average of 55 last year, compared with 34 spots below this year. U.S. News ranked UCLA No. 1 among public universities and 19 of national universities, and Princeton remains in the No. 1 spot for national universities for the eighth straight year.

When looking at its graduation and retention rank, despite its steady percentages, the UI plummeted from No. 104 to No. 136 — or 77 spots below its peer average rank, compared with 43 spots last year.

University officials have cited dwindling state support — while other states are increasing higher education funding — as a reason it can’t keep up.

“Resources do matter, and without adequate resources from the state, we aren’t able to make the needed investments in student outcomes that would lead to higher rankings by U.S. News & World Report and other ranking organizations,” Harreld said in a statement provided to The Gazette. “Without increased commitment from our state government partners and increased tuition, it will be increasingly difficult to make the kinds of investments needed to improve student outcomes.”

Harreld recently reported that the University of North Carolina — among its peers — gets $258 million more than the UI in tuition revenue and state support “for the same mission.” He noted UI’s state appropriation is lower today than in 1998.

The U.S. News rankings — among other metrics in making the list — consider faculty resources, financial resources, alumni giving and reputation.

Like in many other categories, the UI saw its faculty resources rank slip from No. 55 to No. 73, although that remains 46 spots above its peer average rank of No. 119. Its financial resources rank slipped just three spots from No. 76 to No. 79 — or eight spots off its peer average rank of 71.

The Board of Regents, at its upcoming meeting this week, plans to consider asking the state for an additional $20 million in appropriations for the next budget year, which will start July 1, 2019. That includes $18 million for general education support — all of which the board vows will go toward student financial aid.

Those resources, committed in that way, could help further propel the university in the U.S. News & World Report category that matters the most — student outcomes. And a better ranking, officials argue, kick-starts a cycle of better faculty recruiting, more student interest and — of course — more money.

“Make no mistake: Iowa is still an outstanding university, among the top 40 public universities in the country,” Harreld said in his statement. “But we are increasingly at risk of becoming an average university, and if performing at the national average is all that we aspire to, then the efforts made by those who came before us will have been made in vain.

“At Iowa, we are and should be driven to compete with the best.”

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