BYU shot up over 50 places in the university rankings that were just released this week. Not in the US News and World Report rankings, where BYU continues to bounce around the 70s, but in the Washington Monthly rankings of universitiesâ€™ based on their contributions to society, where BYU went from 124 to 68, right between Loyola Chicago and Brown.
Rankings are always the object of scorn among academics, and envy. The US News ranking aims to capture some sense of overall academic quality. BYU could stand to move up a few notches, but with an undergraduate focus and a modest tuition, there are limits on how high it can go without incurring trade-offs against its core mission.
The Washington Monthly ranking seems like a better fit for a school that wants its students to “go forth to serve.” The ranking tries to capture how well a school fosters social mobility, knowledge production, and service (the methodology is explained here). BYU’s big jump this year is encouraging, but there’s still some untapped potential for future improvement. Let’s take a look at the categories:
Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. At 37%, BYU is already doing fairly well here. Could more low-income LDS students be encouraged to attend BYU? Probably. (There’s a variety of tribal self-loathing that says that BYU students are not actually poor, but merely married. I think this is a foolish objection; for the students I knew, the Pell Grant was the difference between staying in school and one partner dropping out for a semester or more to support the spouse or family.)
SAT/Pell Grant-based graduation rate. The ratings use a formula that attempts to predict the graduation rate based on SAT scores (higher average SAT means a higher likelihood of graduation) and Pell Grants as a stand-in for serving low income students (which correlates with a lower graduation rate). BYU students graduate at a rate 3 percentage points higher than predicted, although BYU’s graduation rate is always going to be a bit wonky. Some additional advising (as opposed to omnipresent but unspecific pressuring) to help students graduate in a timely fashion couldn’t hurt, but I don’t know if this is a big growth area.
B.A. to Ph.D. As a primarily undergraduate institution, BYU shines in preparing students for graduate school in any field. It ranks at #8 in this area.
Research dollars. The rest of the research burden falls on the scientists and engineers. The top institutions pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding per year. BYU pulls in ten million, for which there are institutional reasons. There’s room to expand here.
Ph.D.s granted in science and engineering. As the sciences and engineering are some of the few areas where BYU awards a Ph.D., this isn’t a complete mismatch for BYU’s profile. I’ll leave it to the scientists and engineers to explain when it makes sense to earn a Ph.D. in their fields, and under what circumstances it makes sense to earn that degree at BYU.
Peace Corps. Unsurprisingly, BYU does not send a lot of graduates to the Peace Corps. More would be better, but a lot of us already had two years of voluntary service in odd places under our belts by the time we got to our sophomore year. I don’t know if there’s much growth potential here.
ROTC. The size of BYU’s ROTC program relative to its student body is ranked 64, almost precisely where the school lands in the overall ranking. I assume the BYU students who want to participate in ROTC already are doing so.
Work-Study. In the percentage of federal work-study funds spent on service, BYU is dead last. It devotes 0% to service. The top-ranked schools in this category devote over 50%, but 21% would get BYU ranked in the top 50, and even 15% would almost get it into the top 100. I don’t know how much money is involved, but I can think of worse ways to game the system.
The Washington Monthly rankings have an ideal of social utility that’s a good but not perfect match for BYU’s own mission. It’s close enough that it’s still useful to see how BYU is doing according to the Washington Monthly’s standards. Overall, I think BYU is doing OK. In some areas it’s doing very well, in others less well, and some things it’s not doing at all. I think we can skip both the triumphal crowing and the anxious hand-wringing, but there is some cause to hope.