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Washington Monthly ranks NIU among Top 150

September 27, 2012

Cover of Washington Monthly magazineWhen it comes to ranking colleges, academic excellence is important, but is hardly the only measure that matters.

So say the publishers of Washington Monthly’s College Guide and Rankings. They choose to rank colleges not solely upon how well they educate students, but rather upon how well they serve society.

NIU ranked 143rd – with the same overall score as St.Louis University, Boston College, Old Dominion University, Pepperdine University and San Diego State – among 281 public and private national universities ranked.

Only the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and UIC ranked higher than NIU among the state’s public universities on the list. Only three of NIU’s MAC counterparts ranked higher: Western Michigan University (90), Miami University (119) and the University of Toledo (132).

The Washington Monthly rankings are based on three factors: social mobility, which gives colleges credit for enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees; research production, particularly at schools whose undergraduates go on to earn Ph.D.s; and commitment to service.

According to the magazine’s notes on methodology, no single category is to be more important than any other: “The final rankings needed to reflect excellence across the full breadth of our measures, rather than reward an exceptionally high focus on, say, research. Thus, all three main categories were weighted equally when calculating the final score.”

Social Mobility

Ray Alden

Ray Alden

The editors also 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.

NIU ranked 104th 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 on the formula used, the authors projected a graduation rate at NIU of 53 percent. In actuality, NIU graduates 56 percent of the students who enroll here as freshman.

Provost Ray Alden said he is pleased with the ranking, saying that NIU’s dedication to serving traditionally underserved populations is a commitment to serving the greater good.

“It is great that this ranking system recognizes NIU’s long tradition of successfully serving the first generation college-goers among our student community,” Alden said.

“To be noted is that this system has recognized our commitment to community engagement, with higher rankings for the levels of participation of our students, faculty and staff in service activities,” he added. “It is also gratifying that the system recognizes the number of our faculty members who are recognized with national and international awards.”


Lisa Freeman

Lisa Freeman

In the research category, NIU ranked 110 for percentage of faculty receiving significant awards and earned a national ranking of 166 overall, ahead of both Southern Illinois University and Illinois State University.

“The overall score reported by the Washington Monthly is based on a set of metrics that align well with NIU’s overarching goal to be a student-centered public research university. Our overall score is consistent with the university’s commitment to offer a broad spectrum of students the opportunity to engage with faculty who create, expand and apply new knowledge,” said Lisa Freeman, vice president for research and graduate studies.

“The excellence and productivity of the NIU faculty is evidenced by the rank of 110 for the fraction of full-time faculty members who receive prestigious awards.”

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

Its ranking of 187 for research expenditures places NIU ahead of MAC counterparts Ball State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Kent State, Miami and Western Michigan.

“External funding for research is a vital component to NIU’s ability to meet our Vision 2020 goal of becoming the most student-centered research university in the Midwest. Externally funded grants and contracts often provide direct support for our undergraduate and graduate students offering these students experiential learning opportunities that allow them to work alongside our faculty both in the lab and field,” said Dara Little, director of NIU’s Office of Sponsored Projects.

“By engaging students in externally funded research programs, we’re not only preparing our students for their continued academic and career success; we’re training the next generation of researchers and scientists.”


Jill Zambito

Jill Zambito

One of the three critical areas measured in the survey is service to the greater community, and NIU is well regarded in this area, ranking 97th in the nation.

Jill Zambito, director of Student Involvement and Leadership Development at NIU, is proud of the recognition the university receives for service.

“Northern Illinois University has been recognized again on The President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for 2012,” Zambito said. “The president of the United States of America recognized NIU for our extraordinary and exemplary community service contributions.”

NIU ranks 25th in the subcategory of the percentage of federal work-study grant money spent on community service projects.

The service category also takes into account service staff, courses and financial aid support. NIU was a top 100 institution in that area, with a ranking of 90.

“Approximately one-third of our Work Study dollars help support students who are working in the community on programs such as math tutors in DeKalb Public Schools, the Literacy Center, Discovery Center Museum and Opportunity House,” said Rebecca Babel, director of NIU’s Student Financial Aid. “This commitment to community service through the Work Study program provides students with important out-of-classroom learning opportunities and helps support the mission of NIU to contribute expertise to benefit those in our region.”

NIU rates 114th in terms of the number of students participating in community service and the total service hours performed, relative to school size.

“We offer numerous ways to participate in community service at NIU,” Zambito added. “One of the largest, single opportunities for the NIU community to participate in community service is through NIU Cares Day. This day of service to the DeKalb County community offers students, faculty, staff and community members the opportunity to help other members in our community with a variety of service experiences including yard work, painting, cleanup and beautification.”

The service category also took into account the size of a school’s ROTC programs (146th) and the percentage of alumni serving in the Peace Corps (197th), relative to school size.