UI leaders share their perspectives and insights on 2024 Best Colleges rankings
Friday, September 15, 2023

The most recent U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings list the University of Iowa as the top public university in the nation for undergraduate nursing and writing in the disciplines. The latest overall rankings also included multiple schools that improved or dropped 10 or more spots—including Iowa.

In light of the recent rankings, President Barbara Wilson and Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel share their perspectives on where Iowa was ranked, examine changes in the ranking methodology, and highlight some of the progress the university is making in important areas.

Q: This is the third set of “Best Colleges” rankings that has been released since you have been in your roles. Can you help us understand how the U.S. News & World Report rankings are determined and why they matter?

President Wilson
President Barbara Wilson

President Wilson: Sure. The U.S. News rankings are compiled using a multitude of variables such as student outcomes — including graduation rates, retention rates, and student loan debt — faculty resources, and peer assessment scores, among others. The methodology is often tweaked each year but this year there were considerable changes made in the formula. 

Provost Kregel: That’s true. There are roughly 20 different metrics used in the rankings, and surprisingly all but one of them changed this year in terms of how they are considered and weighted.

President Wilson: As for the value of these rankings, they oftentimes serve as a starting point for prospective students when they begin their college search. However, they can’t tell students much about whether the school they’re considering will be a good fit for them. That comes from students and their parents doing their own research, talking to admissions counselors, and taking a campus visit.

Provost Kregel: There is some recent research that directly illustrates that point. A report by the Art & Science Group found that about 60% of high school seniors said they actually considered rankings during their college search, meaning that 40% do not. And among those who said they looked at rankings, only 5% said they knew their top-choice school’s U.S. News ranking. The report also showed that students look at a variety of rankings when evaluating colleges, not just U.S. News.

However, I do think that U.S. News still has a hold on the imagination of a lot of people working in higher education who associate rankings with prestige. I don’t think rankings are nearly as important as fit, but they can come into play when trying to recruit or retain faculty.   

Q: How significant are the changes in the methodology this year, and how have they affected the University of Iowa?

President Wilson: The changes this year are quite substantial. Several universities like ours dropped double digits, while others climbed more than 15 spots. Then there are some that didn’t change at all. That kind of drastic and inconsistent movement really reminds us to think critically when we consider rankings like these.

It feels a little like moving the finish line during the middle of the race. The important thing for us is that we continue to make progress, especially in the area of student success.  That won’t change just because the ranking system changes.

Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel
Provost Kevin Kregel

Provost Kregel: I think that’s a good point. Previously, we were rewarded in the rankings for the high rate of faculty members who had a PhD or terminal degree… and now that metric is completely gone. Last year’s rankings considered the percentage of graduates who took out federal loans, an area in which we rated well. This year, that metric is gone and instead additional weight was added to the average federal loan debt of graduates. That’s an area where we have made progress, but we sit at a lower spot relative to peers than we did in the percentage of graduates who took out loans.

President Wilson: So a sudden change in the rankings like this is really misleading. We are still the same wonderful, research-intensive, student-focused university that we were last year. But if you look at the U.S. News Best Colleges list, it looks like somehow we have really fallen. That’s why it’s important for us to focus on our core values as an institution rather than get too entangled in rankings.

Q: What are some of those values and how do they differ from other colleges on the U.S. News list?

President Wilson: We provide access to a transformational educational experience for students from all backgrounds. Instead of being highly selective and turning away many talented, college-ready students, we are extremely accessible and we are affordable. If you look at the top 100 schools on the U.S. News list that accept more than 85% of applicants, Iowa is right there at the top. If you look at the top 100 schools on the list with the lowest tuition and fees, Iowa is right there near the top. That is a fairly unique combination (accessibility and affordability) for a flagship, AAU university.

We aren’t here to be the gatekeepers and decide who deserves the opportunity to use an education to change their lives for the better. Our mission is to provide an exceptional education to everyone who demonstrates the ability to be successful here and who shows the work ethic and determination to seize that opportunity.

Provost Kregel: Exactly. That is where our mission, our values, and our strategic plan all line up. How can we help more students be successful and achieve their goals? What kind of support can we provide, whether it is academic, financial, or well-being, to help all our students have an opportunity to achieve their goals?

We’re proud of the progress we’ve made in several key areas outlined in our five-year strategic plan, such as graduation and retention rates, reducing student loan debt, and recruiting and retaining talented faculty. In fact, our first-year retention and four-year graduation rates hit all-time highs last year and we were able to increase student aid by $8.1 million.

We have a long-term plan in place and where we sit on a list is not going to impact our efforts. The progress is happening, regardless of whether it is reflected in U.S. News rankings.

Q: Despite the drop in the overall ranking, the university has held strong and even improved in other rankings. To what do you attribute this success?

Provost Kregel: Iowa continues to be known as the best public university in the nation for writing and is increasingly being recognized for our strength in health care. The nursing and writing programs at Iowa help serve critical needs of our state’s workforce.

President Wilson: Nurses are so important to the future of the state of Iowa, and we are frankly one of the best places in the country at training them. We’re investing in that strength and with the help of state funding, we are working to grow the College of Nursing so we can educate an additional 48 nursing students per year by 2026.

Q: What can members of the university community do to help Iowa make progress toward its goals?

Provost Kregel: I would ask that people continue to engage in the implementation of the strategic plan and keep up the excellent work they’ve done to support the success of our students, faculty, and staff. It’s important that we work together to build upon the strengths and values that define us as an institution.  

President Wilson: Continue to provide an environment where students are empowered to achieve their goals, be it through academic support, financial support, or supporting their mental health and well-being.

The University of Iowa is truly a special place. There is nowhere else in the world that combines our unique strengths in writing and communication and in health care with a community that is as passionate and driven as ours. I’m so proud to call this university home and am grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for being part of our vibrant community.  

Read about UI's 2024 rankings

The University of Iowa improved its national ranking in undergraduate nursing programs to No. 4 and is tied for No. 1 among public universities, while also remaining the best public writing program in the country, according to the latest rankings published by U.S. News & World Report

Iowa tied for the No. 5 ranking among all public and private universities for writing in the disciplines, behind Brown University, Columbia University, Duke University, and Princeton University. Like last year, when it was ranked No. 2, Iowa is the only public university on the list.

Read the full story here.