By Robert J. Morse and Samuel Flanigan
This year, U.S. News & World Report has produced our first ever ranking of the undergraduate education at historically black colleges and universities. These colleges were compared only with one another for these rankings. How did we choose the schools to be part of the survey? In order to be on the list, a school currently must be listed as part of the U.S. Department of Education's "Historically Black Colleges and Universities" registry. The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation."
To qualify for the U.S. News ranking, an HBCU also must be an undergraduate baccalaureate-granting institution that enrolls primarily first-year, first-time students and must have been a school that was currently part of the 2008 America's Best Colleges rankings. In almost all cases, if an HBCU college was "Unranked" in the 2008 America's Best Colleges rankings, it was also listed as being "Unranked" in the HBCU rankings (see more details below). In total there were 81 HBCU colleges and universities eligible to be ranked, and 11 of those were "Unranked." The data that were used in the HCBU rankings, except the peer survey results, were the same as what were published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition of the rankings. The U.S. News rankings system rests on two pillars. It relies on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it's based on our nonpartisan view of what matters in education. The indicators we use to capture academic quality fall into seven categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, and alumni giving. The indicators include input measures that reflect a school's student body, its faculty, and its financial resources, along with outcome measures that signal how well the institution does its job of educating students. Following are detailed descriptions of the indicators used to measure academic quality among the HBCUs that were ranked.
Peer assessment (weighting: 25 percent). The U.S. News ranking formula gives greatest weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school's undergraduate academic excellence. The peer assessment survey allows the top academics we consult to account for intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools' academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who don't know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark "don't know." For the first time in the spring and summer of 2007, U.S. News conducted a peer survey among only the president, provost, and admission dean at each HBCU. They were asked to rate all HBCUs, considering each school's scholarship record, curriculum, and quality of faculty and graduates at schools they were familiar with. A total of 243 surveys that were sent out and 38.3 percent responded. Synovate, an opinion-research firm based near Chicago, collected the data.
Retention (25 percent). The higher the proportion of freshmen who return to campus the following year and eventually graduate, the more likely a school is offering the classes and services students need to succeed. This measure has two components: six-year graduation rate (80 percent of the retention score) and freshman retention rate (20 percent). The graduation rate indicates the average proportion of a graduating class who earn a degree in six years or less; we consider freshman classes that started from 1997 through 2000. Freshman retention indicates the average proportion of freshmen entering from 2002 through 2005 who returned the following fall.
Faculty resources (20 percent). Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely it is they will graduate. We use six factors from the 2006-07 academic year to assess a school's commitment to instruction. Class size has two components: the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30 percent of the faculty resources score) and the proportion with 50 or more students (10 percent of the score). In our model, a school benefits more for having a large proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students and a small proportion of large classes. Faculty salary (35 percent) is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living (using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International). We also weigh the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent), and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent).
Student selectivity (15 percent). A school's academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the student body. We therefore factor in test scores of enrollees on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT or Composite ACT score (50 percent of the selectivity score); the proportion of enrolled freshmen who graduated in the top 25 percent of their high school classes (40 percent); and the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent). The data are for the fall 2006 entering class.
Financial resources (10 percent). Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services. U.S. News measures financial resources by using the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services, and related educational expenditures in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms, and hospitals doesn't count, only the part of a school's budget that goes toward educating students.
Alumni giving rate (5 percent). The average percentage of living alumni who gave to their school during 2004-05 and 2005-06 is an indirect measure of student satisfaction.
To arrive at a school's rank, we first calculated the weighted sum of its scores. The final scores were rescaled: The top school in each category was assigned a value of 100, and the other schools' weighted scores were calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores for each ranked school were rounded to the nearest whole number and ranked in descending order. Schools that receive the same rank are tied and are listed in alphabetical order.
Data sources: Most of the data come from the colleges—and U.S. News takes pains to ensure their accuracy. We obtained missing data from sources such as the American Association of University Professors, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Council for Aid to Education, and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Data that did not come from this year's survey are footnoted. Estimates, which are never published by U.S. News, may be used when schools fail to report particular data points. Missing data are reported as N/A in the ranking tables.
Why is a school unranked? U.S. News believes that because these schools are unable to report key educational characteristics or because they have certain other characteristics, it would be unfair to try to compare them statistically with the other schools that are part of the rankings.
We have created a group of unranked HBCU schools that we have listed alphabetically in a separate table. An HBCU was unranked if it met any of the criteria described below.
Those institutions that have indicated that they don't use the SAT or ACT in admission decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants are not ranked. Other types of schools have been unranked in previous years and continue to be unranked this year. They include schools with total enrollment of fewer than 200 students; schools where a vast proportion of students are nontraditional; colleges that don't accept first-year students, sometimes called upper-division schools; private universities that are for-profit; and a few specialized schools in arts, business, or engineering.
How to use the rankings: Just how can rankings help you identify colleges and universities that are right for you? Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers. But for families, the U.S. News rankings provide an excellent starting point because they offer the opportunity to judge the relative quality of institutions based on widely accepted indicators of excellence. You can compare different schools' numbers at a glance, and looking at unfamiliar schools that are ranked near schools you know can be a good way to broaden your search.
Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine our information with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college. It goes without saying that it's very important to research the course and program offerings at any school you're interested in.
How can you best use our rankings? Mining the data for the information you need can definitely inform your thinking. The hard work is up to you.