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Rankings season picks up steam, smiles on NIU

October 5, 2010

Photo of tape measureWhen most people think of college rankings lists, they think only of the 600-pound gorilla of that category — the list published by U.S. News and World Report.

However, when it comes to ranking institutions as numerous and as varied as colleges and universities, one size hardly fits all.

“The mission at Princeton is different from the mission at NIU, so to measure us against the same standards does not always tell the whole story,” says Anne Kaplan, NIU vice president for Administration and University Outreach.

“Rankings like those done by U.S. News and World Report focus almost solely on things that favor schools that place academics above all else, and that does not provide an accurate picture of an institution like NIU, which also places a premium on public service.”

So, for those looking for a more complete picture of NIU, it might prove instructive to look beyond the overall U.S. News and World Report rankings, and peer into some others, such as:

  • Washington Monthly Magazine’s rankings of universities based upon their contribution to the public good.
  • Payscale’s College Salary Report, which provides the median and mid-career median salary for graduates of an institution.
  • U.S. News and World Report’s rankings based upon input from high school guidance counselors.
  • preLaw Magazine’s rankings of Best Value law schools.

Washington Monthly

When it comes to ranking colleges, academic excellence is important, but is hardly the only measure that matters.

So say the editors of Washington Monthly Magazine. They choose to rank colleges not solely upon how well they educate students, but rather upon how well they serve society.

“A college president vying for rankings glory on our list, by contrast, would have to enroll more low-income students, help them earn degrees, orient academic programs toward service, and invest in new scientific research,” the editors say in an explanation of their methodology .

Based upon such criteria, NIU ranked 126th – placing it in the top half of the 258 public and private national universities ranked. Among public universities in Illinois, NIU trailed only the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on this list.

Kaplan welcomed the new approach to ranking because it rewards schools that, like NIU, make public service a priority.

Specifically, the Washington Monthly rankings looked at three categories: social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students); service (encouraging students to give something back to their country); and research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs). The survey weighted all three categories equally, and NIU scored particularly well in the first two.


One of the three critical areas measured in the survey is service to the greater community.

In that regard, NIU excelled in the subcategories of the percentage of federal work-study grant money spent on community service projects (21st) the number of students participating in community service and the total service hours performed (86th), relative to school size.

Ingraining such efforts into the curriculum of the university has benefits that extend beyond addressing the needs of the moment, says Julia Spears, NIU coordinator for Engaged Learning.

“Providing coordinated service programs, which the university supports or administers, teaches students the process of how to engage in activities that contribute to the greater good of the community,” Spears says. “It trains the next generation of scientists, researchers and business leaders to be responsive to community-identified needs.”

The service category also took into account the size of a school’s ROTC programs and the percentage of alumni serving in the Peace Corps, relative to school size.

Social Mobility

The editors also chose to include a category that measures a school’s commitment to recruiting, admitting and graduating low-income students – something that many of the schools that top traditional ranking lists do not do particularly well.

“Everyone pays for these institutions through tax subsidies and federal grants. But for the most part, only the well-off need apply,” the editors say in explaining their emphasis on the category.

NIU ranked 93rd in the nation in the social mobility category. The metric is based upon the percentage of students who receive Pell grants (federal grants reserved for low-income students) and graduation rates.

Because low-income students typically have more trouble graduating, schools with a high percentage of Pell recipients are expected to have lower graduation rates. Based upon the formula used, the authors projected a graduation rate at NIU of 47 percent. In actuality, NIU graduates 51 percent of the students who enroll here as freshman.

NIU Provost Ray Alden was pleased with the ranking, saying that dedication to serving low-income populations is a commitment to serving the greater good of the nation.

“When it comes to getting ahead in life, it has been proven that a key to success is higher education,” Alden says. “And very often those who can afford it the least are the ones who can benefit the most. Not just for their own sake, but also for their families and for their communities.”

In fact, he adds, helping more people attain a degree is vital to ensuring the nation’s success in the increasingly competitive global marketplace.

“If we are going to be globally competitive, a significant portion of our population must have post-secondary degrees, so reaching out to those who traditionally have been left behind influences the public good of the entire nation. If we ignore the increasing number who just can’t afford college without financial aid, we will suffer as a country.”


In the research category, NIU ranked 159th on the list of research institutions, buoyed by a number 95 ranking for percentage of faculty receiving significant awards. (The magazine based the rankings upon information gleaned from a list of awards published by the Center for Measuring University Performance. Editors counted the number won by a university then divided the total by the fall 2008 total instruction/research/service faculty count.)

Other factors considered were total research spending, the number of students that earn a bachelor’s degree who ultimately earn a Ph.D., and the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually.

The ranking places NIU ahead of other Illinois institutions such as Southern Illinois and Illinois State and MAC counterparts Toledo, Miami and Bowling Green.

“Based on sheer dollars, we aren’t near the top of the list, but our balance – having faculty who have received significant humanities awards and significant science awards — raises our ranking,” says David Stone, director of the Office of Sponsored Projects. “It puts us in a league (on this list) with many schools that are much larger.”

preLaw Magazine

The Northern Illinois University College of Law was ranked among the Top 20 law schools in the nation based on value by preLaw magazine, sister publication of the National, as part of its 2010 Best Value Law Schools study.

The study ranked the top 60 schools out of the nearly 200 American Bar Association-approved law schools in the United States, both public and private institutions. NIU, which ranked 13th, was the only public school in the Chicago metropolitan area to make the Top 20.

The study generated its rankings  criteria based on bar passage rate, average indebtedness, employment rate nine months after graduation and tuition for in-state residents.

“At NIU Law, we consider value a total package. Not only is our tuition less than half that of private schools, but the quality of our education is just as excellent,” Dean Jennifer Rosato said. “In addition, the value of our education allows students to have greater flexibility in selecting their career of choice, whether it is private practice or public service.”

A complete story on this ranking is available in NIU Today.


PayScale, one the world’s largest aggregators of salary data, recently provided some good news about how well NIU students fare after graduation.

In their 2010-11 College Salary Report, PayScale included NIU on its list of top U.S. state universities in terms of salary potential of its graduates, with a starting median salary in 2009 listed at $43,700 and a mid-career median salary listed at $80,300.

NIU graduates trailed only those from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Illinois Chicago in terms of early earning power, and were virtually tied with Southern Illinois University. In terms of mid-career salary, NIU stood alone in second place behind UIUC and UIC.

“More than ever, families today want to know how a college degree will parlay into outcomes after college,” says Brandon Lagana, director of Admissions. “So rankings like this one matter to families who are asking, ‘What can your college do for my daughter or son?’ ”

High School Guidance Counselor Rankings

Sometimes when you look into the fine print of established rankings you also find interesting nuances.

For instance, within U.S. News and World Report’s rankings (which classify NIU as a Tier 2 school) one sub-category within the institutional reputation ranking examines how high school guidance counselors rank schools. In that instance, among Illinois public universities, NIU ranks third in the state, trailing the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois Chicago.

NIU’s rank at 171 (out of 258 national universities) places NIU well ahead of Illinois State University (219) and Southern Illinois (194).

“While parents are a greater influence on students, high school guidance counselors are still an important influence group for students,” Lagana says. “Their perceptions matter, and any time that you can make a positive impression on them, it’s critical.”