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NIU climbs in Washington Monthly rankings

September 9, 2013

Washington Monthly coverNIU has placed 57th on a newly created Washington Monthly list: “America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges.”

The honor is “pretty exclusive,” the magazine editors write. “Out of the 1,572 colleges and universities in our broader rankings, only 349 made the cut as best-bang-for-the-buck schools.”

Colleges ranked must meet four criteria:

  • At least 20 percent of their students must be receiving Pell grants. (NIU’s percentage is 50.)
  • They must have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent. (NIU’s is 56 percent.)
  • Each school’s actual graduation rate must meet or exceed the rate that would be statistically predicted for that school given the number of lower-income students admitted.
  • To make sure their graduates are earning enough in the workforce to at least cover their student loans, schools must have a student loan default rate of 10 percent or less. (NIU’s percentage is 7.)

According to the list, NIU’s “net price” is $15, 942. Washington Monthly defines net price as the average tuition that first-time, full-time students from families with an annual income of $75,000 or less actually pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.

Of in-state rivals, only the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (37) and Illinois State University (47) placed higher than NIU.

“We appreciate that NIU is being recognized as being one of a select group of universities for our ‘return on the investment’ for our students,” Provost Ray Alden said. “In terms of life-long rewards, the value of an NIU degree is clearly worth the resources and efforts that our students invest in their education.”

Meanwhile, NIU has climbed eight spots on Washington Monthly’s unique rankings of national universities. NIU placed 135th this fall on the list of 284 public and private national universities.

Ray Alden

Ray Alden

The magazine’s annual rankings of colleges are designed to “embody the American higher education compact.”

“Everyone has a stake in the conduct of our colleges and universities,” the editors write. “We’re all affected by the productivity of our knowledge workers and the integrity of our college-educated leaders.”

Colleges earning applause are those that offer access and success to all students, teach and encourage public service and seek and receive research dollars.

Only UIUC and UIC ranked higher than NIU among the state’s public universities. Only two of NIU’s 13 counterparts in the Mid-American Conference ranked higher: Miami University (115) and Western Michigan University (123).

Washington Monthly rankings are based on three factors:

  • Social Mobility, which acknowledges colleges for enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees that are affordable;
  • Research Production, particularly at schools whose undergraduates go on to earn Ph.D.s; and
  • Commitment to Service.

“It is gratifying to see that NIU is being recognized for its dedication to the public good by its position this ranking. Our mission and values reflect the factors in this ranking system: social mobility, research and service/engagement with communities in the region and the country,” Alden said.

“In this regard, it is important to note that we are ranked among the top 100 universities in the area of ‘service staff and courses and financial aid support’ and in the top 25 for the category ‘work study funds spent on service.’ ”


Photo of an NIU diplomaWashington Monthly 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 93rd, a metric based on the percentage of students who receive federal Pell 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.

At NIU, however, such students have myriad opportunities to enhance their learning.

During the 2012 -13 academic year, NIU placed Federal Work Study student employees at Opportunity House, the Children’s Learning Center, the Discovery Center Museum, the Growing Place and St. Mary School. Meanwhile, the university provided reading tutors to the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic and math tutors to DeKalb Community Unit School District 428.

All placements have been renewed for 2013 -2014 while the number of reading and math tutors is doubling.

“Using Federal Campus Work Study funds, NIU is able to place students in community service organizations. Not only does this provide students with financial assistance, it also allows them to participate in engagement opportunities,” said Rebecca Babel, director of the NIU Student Financial Aid Office.

“With the help of NIU students, these organizations are able to enhance the services they provide to the children in our surrounding community. NIU’s commitment to funding students to work in community service agencies is reflective of our commitment to academic excellence and civic engagement.”


NIU places among the Top 200 research universities in the country.

Lisa Freeman and Dara Little

Lisa Freeman and Dara Little

Factors considered include total research spending, the number of students who earn bachelor’s degree and ultimately complete Ph.D.s and the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually.

“NIU remains committed to offering 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. “President Baker’s strong commitments to research excellence and student engagement suggest that NIU will continue to offer a high value educational experience to undergraduate and graduate students.”

“There’s a linkage between NIU’s external funding activities and these rankings,” added Dara Little, director of the NIU Office of Sponsored Projects.

“Sponsored awards support cutting-edge research and scholarly programs that provide experiential learning and service opportunities for NIU’s diverse student population that will prepare them for careers beyond graduation. In OSP, we routinely see the importance our faculty and staff place on incorporating students into their research programs and their efforts clearly show in these rankings.”


Jill Zambito

Jill Zambito

The third critical area quantified in the survey is service to the greater community. NIU is well regarded in this area, ranking 99th in the nation.

The service category also took into account federal work-study funds spent on service (NIU ranks 25th) as well as service staff, courses and financial aid support (NIU ranks 87th) and community service participation hours (130th).

Additional measurement factors included the size of a school’s ROTC programs (NIU is 128) and the percentage of alumni serving in the Peace Corps (209), relative to school size.

Jill Zambito, director for Student Involvement and Leadership Development, points to the several avenues for community service paved by her office.

“NIU provides students with a variety of opportunities to be involved with community service. One example, NIU Cares Day, is a day of service to the DeKalb County community,” Zambito said. “It 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.”

Students also can participate in Huskie Alternative Breaks (HAB).

“Since 2009, this program has been sending students to participate in community service throughout the United States. Compassionate Huskies joining together, have provided assistance in the wake of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas,” she said. “HAB strives to raise awareness and educate students about social issues as well as inspire them to become active members of society and leaders in their communities.”