University News

Lowest Ivy rank does not faze admins, students

University’s endowment, which lags behind those of its peers, hurts its rankings in national lists

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2014

University rankings hit the Internet every September, commanding the attention of administrators, prospective students and their parents.

Though rankings often inspire confusion and frustration, they have left an indelible mark on the college search process, setting the framework in which many applicants imagine their place among the United States’ thousands of higher education institutions.

The U.S. News and World Report, which produces the list widely considered the benchmark for American institutions, released its 30th annual national universities rankings Sept. 9. Brown fell to 16th place, last in the Ivy League, prompting questions about what factors into the rankings, how much weight they should be assigned and who is taking them into consideration.


Money talks

Financial weaknesses encumber the University. In the financial resources category, which accounts for 10 percent of the overall U.S. News ranking, the University places 24th, significantly trailing this year’s second-lowest Ivy, Cornell, which comes in at 17th.

The category includes per-student spending on instruction, research and student services, but the ramifications of a less-than-robust portfolio reach beyond this measure, most notably impacting faculty resources, the second area in which the University’s comparative disadvantage is most pronounced.

Faculty resources make up one-fifth of a university’s total ranking and are determined by salary, class size, the proportion of faculty members with the highest degree in their field, the student-faculty ratio and the percentage of full-time faculty members. By this standard, the University is 17th in the nation and seventh in the Ivy League, far behind Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale, all of which are ranked in the top eight.

Neither low salaries nor a lack of funds to hire more professors accounts for this discrepancy between the University and its Ivy peers, administrators said.

“I’ve never been in a position where we weren’t able to offer the salary to recruit somebody,” said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12.

Rather, the University suffers from an “infrastructure deficit,” McLaughlin said, adding that this makes expanding the faculty in the physical and life sciences particularly hard. Not only does Brown lack the physical space — offices and laboratories — to accommodate more physical and life science scholars, but its equipment also may not meet the technological standards set by wealthier schools, he said.

The University’s infrastructural and financial deficits have forced administrators to “be very careful and very purposeful about where we make investments,” said President Christina Paxson, noting that peer schools may not have to be as deliberate about the projects to which they commit a great deal of money.

Comparably weak financial resources in the humanities and social sciences may be a result of Brown’s relatively small graduate programs, McLaughlin said, adding that some professors looking for new posts later in their careers may choose universities where they can collaborate with more grad students.

Given these weaknesses, it follows logically that key elements of Paxson’s strategic plan center on building up graduate programs and academic facilities. Plans to construct a new engineering building by 2018 have already been announced.

But Paxson and other administrators insisted that the key to boosting the University’s ranking lies in improving the quality of education at Brown rather than pointed efforts to drive up rankings.

“I don’t see wanting to build the grad programs as a response to the rankings,” Paxson said, though she added that she values the role grad students play in attracting better faculty members and bolstering the quality of research conducted by all members of the University community.


Scoring selectivity

Brown also lags slightly behind some of its peers in selectivity, particularly in terms of SAT and ACT scores, which compose 65 percent of the metric used by U.S. News. Brown’s SAT range, which measures enrolled students’ scores from the 25th to 75th percentiles, stretches from 1330 to 1540 combined on the math and critical reading sections. While comparable to those of Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn, these scores lag behind those of the top four Ivies, whose ranges each span from about 1400 to perfect marks.

Brown students may have relatively low SAT scores because the University values test scores less than its peers in selecting students, said Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission. The fact that the University loses some of its highest-scoring admitted students to schools with higher SAT ranges may also explain the discrepancy, he added.

Like Paxson, Miller says he has no interest in tinkering with policies in order to bump up the U.S. News ranking.

“We’re really trying to put together a class that reflects Brown, not one that fits into whatever rubric U.S. News and World Report puts together,” Miller said.

Despite one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country and very competitive SAT scores, the University placed 39th in overall selectivity among national universities due to an administrative error, Paxson said. The form the University submitted to U.S. News did not indicate that it requires either SAT or ACT scores from all applicants, which resulted in a penalty that reduced Brown’s selectivity score, she added.

The University has previously been ranked in the top 10 in selectivity every year since 2002, except last year, when it ranked twelfth. The error likely cost the University at least 20 spots in the selectivity criterion and played a role in the slip from last year’s overall rank of 14 to this year’s 16.

The University tied with Penn for sixth among Ivies in peer assessment score, a measure calculated by surveying university administrators across the country about the quality of academics at an institution.

A lower peer assessment score may be attributed in part to weight assigned to graduate programs and the misconception that “open means easy,” Paxson said, referring to the University’s distinctive open curriculum.

The University is competitive with its peers in the proportion of alums who donate and freshman retention and graduation rates, coming in fifth in the nation in each of these criteria.


Dividing tiers, not the top

Students downplay the usefulness of the rankings, and administrators are skeptical about how much they affect admission. But most agree rankings play an important role in a broad sense, grouping universities into fairly clear tiers. This is especially helpful for applicants unfamiliar with the collegiate hierarchy.

The U.S. News rankings “validate” the elite status of top schools, solidifying their position in the marketplace, said Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News.

“I think we want to be considered in a group of peer schools that are considered among the best in the country,” Miller said, adding that “the difference between being 16th and 100th is significant but I think the difference between 16 and 12 is not that important.”

Paxson said she also doubted that jumping a few spots in the rankings would have a tangible impact on the admission process but noted that such an improvement would probably reflect meaningful advances in finances that would allow the University to offer more generous financial aid packages to middle-class students.

“The people who get most distressed about this are in the institutions and their leadership themselves,” said Stephen Nelson, associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar at the Leadership Alliance at Brown. Incremental differences in ranking are unlikely to impact students choosing among top universities, who will probably pay more attention to the many other factors that go into the process, Nelson added.

Students echoed the idea that differences in rankings among Ivies are not important factor when choosing among them.

“The difference between number one and number 16 is so small,” said Haley Lee ’18, adding that Brown’s culture influences the decision process of prospective students more than its relatively low ranking.

Differences among Ivies are especially irrelevant in circles where prospective students have access to college counselors, peers and parents who have attended the nation’s most renowned institutions of higher education.

“At the private schools in New York, where there’s intensive college counseling, the hierarchy within the Ivy League is well known,” said Lucas Philips, a senior at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York.

If rankings hold any significance for Fieldston students, it is their impact on “the wow factor” of a university, Philips said. Those who highly value prestige may care that a “Harvard hoodie is going to have much more of a wow factor than the Cornell hoodie,” he said.

“I’m basing the schools I think I’m going to look at on what I’ve heard about them and who I know that’s gone there,” said Ali Rosenthal, a junior at The Trinity School, another New York prep school.


‘A blind date’

Not every applicant can phone a friend or rely on a college counselor who went to an Ivy. Talented applicants from places where Ivy League graduates are far from common often resort to online rankings to figure out where to apply.

“India is very rank-obsessed,” said Ria Vaidya ’16, adding that there is an established hierarchy of prestige for universities in her home country.

In contrast, “there is no magic number” for American schools, said Advik Iyer Guha ’16, who related the college search to “a blind date” for international students.

Applicants from countries where universities are clearly ranked face a formidable challenge in making sense of American universities, which are ranked not only by a variety of criteria but also by different institutions, though the U.S. News list is the most influential, Vaidya said.

Lacking intimate knowledge of the American colleges to which they apply, Indian applicants often make poor decisions informed by one list of rankings or another, Guha said. He stressed the importance of taking personal fit into account but acknowledged that this is difficult for some. Many international applicants do not have the privilege of visiting campuses, which can be a defining moment in a student’s college search, he added.

But not all international students lack the requisite resources to become closely acquainted with top American colleges. Many students who attended top international schools outside the U.S. share the advantages that applicants from top prep schools enjoy.

Students at international schools in Hong Kong look at rankings as much as Americans might but usually make final decisions based on personal factors, said Richard Yue ’16 and Trevor Lam ’17, both of whom attended international schools in Hong Kong and have family members who attended American and British universities.

  • Felicity Wong

    Fire Margarett Klawunn and her entire team. Fire Brown U, DPS. Have Providence PD and RI PD on College Hill and grin and bear the consequences (which will be bad only to bad people). Spend the money that you can save on hiring great professors instead.

    • lolz

      If by “bad people” you mean everyone under 21 in possession of alcohol, go for it. You’ll change your tune when half the student body has a criminal record. No more “referrals” to Res Life for a meaningless meeting with an administrator.

      RI PD? Never heard of it, and clearly neither have you.

      • Aboud Djahan

        Rhode Island State Trooper. There. Satisfied?

        This is not a matter of “tune”. I take it you are a Brown University administrator, and that you have admitted to shielding College Hill from the law of the land. You obstruct justice.

        • lolz

          LOL. Not even close my friend. If you even read my comment, you’d know I said “a meaningless meeting with an administrator”. If I was an administrator, I’d think a little higher of myself, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Douglas Murphy

    The reason Brown was ranked low was Ruth Simmons. The reason Brown is ranked low is Christina Paxson. One is moon beam and the other a flake.

  • ’15

    the misconception that “open means easy”

    Our reputation for “easy” is deserved — we have low selectivity yet thehighest undergrad GPAs in the Ivy League.

    And let’s not even talk about alumni giving and the endowment.

    Is Brown ready to fix its priorities yet?

    • alex

      I would love to live in a world where an 8.6% acceptance rate is low selectivity! I do agree that Brown needs to improve its ranking, but there is certainly enough selectivity with its applicants.

      • Wake up pal

        Hi alex, do you live in another planet or utopia world??!! Do you know acceptance rate and ranking go hand by hand in the long run. Wak up pal.

        • alex

          I’m not sure what you’re saying here… when the ranking goes down, but the acceptance rate lowers from 9.2% to 8.6%. Obviously there are other factors here, and the university is still selective, when other schools have increased admission rates:

      • Freedom64

        Yes but it attracts weaker candidates that are preoccupied with Ivy rather than top University. Have you seen Brown’s SAT scores?

  • Alum ’97

    I’m concerned that the value of rankings is being minimized somewhat at Brown.

    As an alum, I’m not really interested in hearing interpretations of what value university rankings have. I am interested in hearing how Brown will work to improve its rank.

    Ask administrators, philanthropists, and even parents outside of the Brown community what their perception is of the US News ranakings. The biases revealed in the article illustrate psychological phenomena of cognitive dissonance, rationalization, and perhaps even escalation of commitment.

    Try to square these statements,:

    “At the private schools in New York, where there’s intensive college
    counseling, the hierarchy within the Ivy League is well known,…If rankings hold any significance for Fieldston students, it is their impact on “the wow factor” of a university,… ”

    “India is very rank-obsessed,…”

    “The U.S. News rankings “validate” the elite status of top schools,
    solidifying their position in the marketplace, said Bob Morse, director
    of data research at U.S. News.”

    with these statements:

    “The difference between number one and number 16 is so small,…” [Really?]

    “Students echoed the idea that differences in rankings among Ivies are not important factor when choosing among them.” [Really?]

    “I think we want to be considered in a group of peer schools that are
    considered among the best in the country,…the difference between being 16th and 100th is significant but I think the difference between 16 and 12 is not that important.” [Well, Brown’s not in the top 12 this year, but we did make the top 100.]

    Perhaps the school can discipline and incentivize the way we play the rankings game.

    Why not give performance bonuses to the University’s admin and governance folks to reward a climb in the US News rankings?

    Include profs in the bonus system. They are key to Brown’s reputation amongst
    our peers. Professors are ambassadors for Brown at each conference, professional event, and media mention of their work/research.

    The US News rankings are an opportunity. Be more aggressive. Use the rankings to show the world what Brown is and strives to be within US higher education.

  • alumnnnnnn

    Rank slide means school doesn’t do a good job, means 1) Philanthropists have doubts in trusting administrators, 2) Disappointed alumns and parents. I strongly echo the comments on “I’m not really interested in hearing interpretations of what value university rankings have. I am interested in hearing how Brown will work to improve its rank.”, unless Brown’s rank can be within top 5, then we can say the rank is no value.

    • johnlonergan

      This disappointed alum agrees with you. I would love to take courses from Brown over the Internet, and I’m willing to pay for it. I’ve personally spent over $300,000 on my education since leaving Brown–and not a penny of that has gone to my undergraduate alma mater. Shame on Brown for foregoing that revenue.

  • johnlonergan

    Clearly Christina Paxson and existing Brown administrators see no problem with Brown. Putting on my McKinsey hat, I’d make the following analysis:

    1) Brown is competing with institutions that have more resources,
    2) Brown’s competitive disadvantages vis-a-vis other ‘top’ schools are increasing
    3) Brown is unwilling to consider changing how it accepts and educates its students and treats its alums
    4) Brown’s current financial structure is insufficient to support Brown’s pretensions of remaining within the ‘elite’ category.

    Therefore, Brown is slipping into mediocrity. This will have follow-on effects on teacher recruitment and retention, student acceptance (at 60%, much lower than Harvard or Stanford), student quality and future alumni contributions.

    In short, Brown is in a “Teufelskreis” of its own making (look it up).

    So, what would McKinsey say in order to correct this downward spiral? Even though Jerome Vascellaro also worked at McKinsey, he is unable or unwilling to give an answer.

    We have created a plan for Brown for the next 250 years. If you want to see it, please let us know.

    John Lonergan, AB ’72, MBA Harvard ’76, Venture Capitalist, San Francisco

    • Letting you know

      I want to see it.

      • johnlonergan
        • Thoughts


          In my opinion, the sep 24 article presents the clearest case, although all 3 are relatively similar. I could nitpick details, but we both know that’s not very important.

          I know some MOOCs (coursera, for one) allow you to pay for a certificate. Are there systems in place that are similar to your multiple pricing level sort of online courses?

          If you think that brown should have its own platform, I think the ideal place to start would be for you to collaborate with current students or young grads on creating a prototype platform. I think you might have noticed after a year of commenting here that the administration is not always the most receptive. But students here are capable and willing to move for change — small student projects can have a big impact (think Mocha, or the critical review). If you have a working concept, maybe the University will be more receptive. If not, well, every other university has pretty much the same problems you’re talking about. There’s no real reason that it has to be Brown.

          These are of course just some idle thoughts. Alum’13

          • johnlonergan

            We in Northern California are doing just that.

    • Bat

      Since when has Brown been as highly regarded as Stanford and Harvard? You can’t compare us to schools that have never truly been peers in any real sense of the term. I cannot fathom why people find the fact that we have different priorities so difficult to grasp.

      • You’re right, Bat. Brown has no pretensions of being a top-class or Ivy League school.

        • Norse

          There are lots of top-tier schools that don’t have the means to compete with HYPSM. Why can’t we be happy where we are?

          • I don’t share your low goals for Brown’s reputation or capabilities.

          • Because standing still means that you’re continuing to fall behind.
            From my vantage point in San Francisco, Brown is becoming irrelevant. I’m much more excited by what I see here happening at Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Northeastern, U Texas, U Michigan and even the U of New Mexico than I am about Brown.
            Brown is in danger of becoming Disneyland for rich people (and a few lackeys) to play, rather than a serious university with at least pretensions of being world-class.

  • Rank guy

    Administrators and faculty’s mission to school is to improve the rank, end of story.

    • cut satff salary and benefits

      Alumn and students must do something, rank slips means – some people must go, cut benefits on administrators, cut their salary.

    • johnlonergan

      Sorry, Rank Guy. Christina Paxson and Jerome Vascellaro don’t care.

  • JZ Hasef

    Dear Joseph Zappa, You have no idea how provincial you sound. By the way you write, you promote the notion that Brown University is mediocre, and should rank the lowest among the Ivies. Have no fear. The deans like to keep you that way. There is then no pressure on them to do any better. (They could not even if they wanted to.)

    • Alum ’97

      What kind of moronic comment is that? It’s not an editorial. Mr. Zappa reported what the bigwigs at Brown had to say about the issue. The article is nicely researched, covers many bases, and is well written and edited.

      The next article(s) on the topic could be more investigative. For example, a history of Brown’s rankings correlated to historical endowment levels, other statistics and contemporaneous campus happenings, or an article on how each of our Ivy peers manage ranking benchmarks, or a comment/explanation from our former Provost, Mark Schlissel, (who was apparently responsible for our drop in rank this year), all would be interesting to read.

      • Patrick Bannigan

        Exactly. You don’t get it.

  • WTF

    I can think of but one ranking less meaningful than that of US News – the “well known” “hierarchy among the Ivy League” put forth by the NYC prep school community. To a first approximation that will always look like what The US News rankings would have looked like 25 years earlier.

  • Robert Boni

    I am not a Brown alumnus, although my daughter attends. My casual observation is that Brown students, seem to be highly motivated and very intelligent. Certainly the equal of other Ivy League institutions that I am familiar with. Hire some fundraisers and review the endowment investments. Would it be possible to “piggyback” on the endowment skills of other investment managers such as Mr. Swensen at Yale?

    • Howitworks

      Mr. Swenson doesn’t do the fundaising at Yale. Excess returns are nice but won’t close the gap without a strong fundraising component. Penn had a return of 17.5% last year, for example, but their endowment grew almost $2 billion from a $7.7 billion starting point.

      Plus, Swenson gets access to managers and deals by virtue of size, which Brown can’t perfectly match.

  • Amazing

    “Despite one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country and very competitive SAT scores, the University placed 39th in overall selectivity among national universities due to an administrative error, Paxson said. The form the University submitted to U.S. News did not indicate that it requires either SAT or ACT scores from all applicants, which resulted in a penalty that reduced Brown’s selectivity score, she added.”

    Is this person still working for Brown?

    • John the Skeptic

      I’m not sure that I even believe Paxson’s explanation. US News no longer simply accepts the word of university administrators regarding SAT scores and other metrics because of course so many administrators have lied in the past in order to game their rankings.

      US News now cross references data received directly from the universities with the Common Data Set and, more importantly, information from Moody’s and S&P, which rate the universities’ bond issues. The thinking is that lying to US News is par for the course but lying to Moody’s and S&P is financial fraud, exposing administrators to criminal and civil penalties.

      So the likelihood of Brown being ranked 39th due an administrative error is, in my opinion, low.

    • fofo

      The explanation is hogwash. Trust me.

  • LexRofes

    I don’t care if Brown falls to 100. If your self-esteem is tied to how US News ranks us, then I am really truly sorry. I care that Brown continues to do something of value. Brown could, magically, become way less selective and take students who are theoretically lower quality than at present, but if Brown took those students and gave them skills/experiences/etc to make their lives better, then it’s a worthwhile institution. If it has super high quality students (it does) and fails to do give them any real value-added, then it’s not. The comments here seem to mostly be saying either that the ranking is important because…well…it is or the ranking is important because if our ranking is lower we lose prestige and might have lower quality students accept our admission offers. Can someone explain to me why either of those things are horrible, other than that it might mean that people are less impressed with us when we say we went to Brown at cocktail parties? Brown exists to take 18-year-olds and give them 4 years of something that is theoretically going to make their lives better. Not to perpetuate itself and its (still very) high US News ranking.

    • johnlonergan

      I suppose that there are always apologists for mediocrity and back-sliding. As a Brown alum, I’m not one of those.

      • Go Crimson!

        You smell bad.

    • Judy

      A more meaningful perspective is obtained using percentages. Brown is in the top 1% of colleges/universities in the nation and the world. Now, what’s the problem again? 🙂

  • Real Value

    Value, Rank, Quality, self-esteem, and Prestige go hand in hand. It affects our endowments ,when any of the above criteria falls behind. When endowments fall behind, it in turn affects the above criteria. Be realistic.

  • also

    Alums are voting with their feet. Many, like me, have other institutions to donate to that show greater value. Stanford’s annual fund last year raised $1 Billion. Meanwhile, Brown is celebrating a curriculum designed by a Clinton radical in 1970, and throwing sex parties. If you wanted to create an Ivy League from scratch today, would Brown make the cut ?

    It’s clear we’ve got a corrupted liberal administration and faculty that let the inmates — just passing through for 4 years — pilot the ship. Not good.

    • Freedom64

      All top American Universities are liberal. You should just say corrupted administration make your point.

      • also

        I accept your point. I for one no longer have the option of donating to these institutions any more anyway, and have to simply put everything into kids’ tuition !

  • Create less liberal arts

    Brown should create more real jobs degrees for its graduates, not just liberal arts degree, people nowadays who doesn’t get good paying job, if you are not in engineering, professional areas. So if Paxson insist to hire more liberal arts professors, and in turn creates more liberal arts degrees for Brown students, then the endowments will be much much lower than other ivies in the long run. Don’t bring Brown into wrong directions.

  • jim
  • Mehek

    If I cared about rankings and prestige, I’d have gone to Harvard or Stanford or Duke or Penn or Cornell or Hopkins or any other school that prioritizes those things. Brown is special. We don’t care about SAT scores or salaries. We care about the process of knowledge acquisition. We care about having a good time. We care about being artsy and independent.

    • Freedom64

      Nothing wrong with Brown. I spent 3 years there and it was fine but certainly not elite. Forget that it’s the bottom of the Ivies. It just doesn’t compete with the elite Ivies or not. My wife and I have spent time at Harvard (7 years) Northwestern (5 years) and Washington University (8 years). Again Brown is fine but all those schools are much better. My high school son isn’t strongly motivated yet. He can always have Brown be his safety school if he wants to stay in New England. Hopefully he can at least get into Wash U and be challenged a bit more and take advantage of the larger resources. Many Brown Students come off as very soft intellectually and I have even hired Columbia grads over them.

      • Bruno92

        “Many Brown Students come off as very soft intellectually and I have even hired Columbia grads over them” — if you are hiring Columbia students over those from Bruno then you are a mentally stunted DOOOOOOOOOOOOUCHE !!!!

  • Upenn

    I like how everyone is acting as though we’ve fallen from 1st to 16th. When was Brown ever ranked in the top 5? When did it ever have a relatively large endowment? When did it perform even moderately well on international rankings?

    • rick131

      Actually in the 70’s and 80’s Brown was one of the most difficult schools to gain admisssion in the nation, right behind Harvard, rankings aside. Altho Penn, Dartmouth, and Cornell may be “ranked ” higher now, they still are easier to gain admission and have lower admit stats than Brown. Penn is ranked artifically high as still remains the second easiest ivy to gain admission.

  • Recent Alum

    In the late 1990’s, Brown was ranked around 6th in the nation in the U.S. News rankings. This was when Brown was under the leadership of then-president Vartan Gregorian, a true visionary. How is it possible that in 15 years or so, we’ve slid down so far while other Ivies and non-Ivies have come so far up (Penn, Duke, U Chicago)?

    It has to do with good leadership, which in turn impacts fundraising / our endowment. Bringing in money allows for expansion: building new facilities, hiring additional professors, and conducting more research. All of these factors affect the reputation of the university.

    Brown is an excellent school. All of us who attended know that. But to lure the top talent–be it prospective students or faculty–let’s not bury our collective heads in the sand. Rankings matter.

    Until Christina Paxson, the deans, and various administrators make fundraising and improving the Brown brand paramount, we’ll probably drop even further in the rankings.

    Frankly, it seems we’re relying solely on our Ivy League status to keep us afloat at the 16th spot.

  • also

    Brown has been in denial for decades. The Trustees are not doing their job. They continue to support university administrators and faculty that are more concerned about using Brown for their liberal platform than for high education standards. Idiotic student movements come and go — it takes a generation of teachers and administrators to sustain sub-par performance.

    I’m a disgusted alum, and I will continue to inform other alums of the depths to which Brown has fallen. Tenured professors will never change. House-cleaning can only be initiated by the Trustees.

    Wake up, Brown Trustees. Every alum has many many other places to which they can donate.

  • also

    Lowest Ivy rank does not faze admins, students”
    What a shocker. No accountability among administration, surrounded by a bunch of temporary student residents, buttressed by tenured faculty.

    What can this combination possibly teach anyone about the real world?