ASU President Michael Crow is staking $60,000 in bonus cash on a magazine’s college rankings that have never been kind to his university. This year, U.S. News & World Report again lists Arizona State University as a “third-tier” academic institution, deprived of even a numerical rank.
Regardless, when the Arizona Board of Regents last week approved $150,000 in performance bonuses for Crow, it included the expectation that ASU improve in U.S. News’ eyes.
That is among 10 separate goals for improvement set by the regents. Those include increasing freshman retention and the university’s graduation rate, to name a couple. For each goal achieved, Crow is to receive $10,000; if he completes all 10, he gets an extra $50,000.
Not all of the regents said they were comfortable including a magazine ranking with goals like increasing the number of Arizona’s minorities that enroll at ASU.
“We had a long conversation on that, and I guess it’s a perception thing, it’s an image thing that personally I’m not that enamored with,” said Robert Bulla, the board president. “But some folks are.”
And Crow insisted the magazine ranking goal remain, Bulla said.
U.S. News’ rankings are arguably the most widely consumed analysis of the nation’s universities. Within higher education, there is a legion of critics skeptical of the magazine’s methodology. They argue that U.S. News’ measures are hugely subjective and have little to do with the quality of a university’s instruction.
Elizabeth Capaldi, Arizona State provost, just this week derided the magazine when talking about a different ranking of graduate programs. “It’s like U.S. News to me — it’s not an intellectual endeavor where you actually try to analyze and figure out what the faculty are doing so you can compare them in a meaningful way,” Capaldi told Inside HigherEd, an online publication that reports on academia.
The ranking’s formula gives greatest weight — 25 percent — to the results of a survey that asks the nation’s university executives about “intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching,” the magazine states.
Such results are the product of reputation, not performance.
Crow said he focuses on a different set of data when looking at U.S. News’ rankings: six-year graduation rates. The measure shows the percentage of ASU students who complete degrees within six years of enrolling.
At Arizona State, only 55 percent of students graduated within that time frame in 2005.
“I agree that those rankings are subjective,” Crow said, “but within their subjectivity, there is an element to them that we feel bad about.”
ASU is on the cusp of stepping up from the third tier into the list of the top 50 percent of universities in the nation, as judged by U.S. News. Its peer institutions have given it an assessment score of 3.3 on a scale of one to five, the highest of any third-tier school. The University of Arizona, which ties for 98th best university, is scored a 3.6 by its peers.
Besides graduation rates, what appears to be holding ASU down in the rankings are its funding per student, which is about $6,500, and its freshman retention rate — more than 20 percent of students drop out or fail before their sophomore year.
Another hindrance is the university’s student selectivity. Ninety-one percent of Arizona State applicants get in — and that’s unlikely to ease. Crow has pledged to continue admitting marginal students.
Though much of the data that go into the rankings are considered valuable, some have virtually nothing to do with student and faculty performance. One such measure is the percentage of alumni who donate to the university.
Last year, Capaldi told the Tribune some elite universities likely would rank beneath schools such as ASU if student improvement were actually tracked.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that measures critical thinking, might offer one such example.
Northern Arizona University is relegated to U.S. News’ fourth and bottom tier, despite assessment results from last year showing its students’ critical thinking skills have improved significantly. ASU’s assessment results were below what was expected.
Bulla said he and Crow are still negotiating how much ASU must improve in each area by the time his contract ends next year to earn his bonus. The U.S. News rankings are the one category that Crow doesn’t have control over.
“Of course,” Bulla said, “I was kidding him that you can’t bribe.”
U.S. News & World Report on ASU
Rank: 50th-75th percentile
Reputational Score (with 1 being worst and 5 best): 3.3
SAT: Majority score between 990-1230
Graduation Rate: 55%