Louisiana colleges lag in rankings

The highest ranked university in Louisiana, public or private, is Tulane, according to Forbes annual ranking of America’s top colleges released Wednesday.

Tulane University came in at 128. LSU had the second best showing in the state, finishing at 179 in the ranking of 650 schools on the Forbes list. Seven other four-year Louisiana schools made the list, but none of those cracked the country’s top 450.

The annual top colleges list is recognized nationally even as more higher education officials debate the value of lists that compare large public research institutions with small, private liberal arts colleges.

A number of higher education watchers have been pushing for parents and students to pay less attention to lists that place too much weight on prestige and not enough value on academic quality.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley on Wednesday said the Forbes ratings, like other school rankings, can be useful, but she cautioned that students should take note of which schools are being compared and under what criteria.

“You have to look at what these rankings tell you, but it’s also important to consider what they don’t tell you,” Woodley said.

For instance, rankings that place a lot of value on graduation rates are often more of a reflection of a school’s selectivity than its academic performance, she said. Those type of rankings disproportionately hurt schools that serve large numbers of transfer students, she said, considering transfer students don’t get counted in a school’s graduation rate.

“I want to know how competitive Nicholls State is when you compare it to other schools like Nicholls,” Woodley said. “You can’t compare it to LSU. They serve different students; they have different missions.”

A better way to look at schools, she said, is to look at how many degrees a school produces in relation to how many students they have in the pipeline.

Woodley also said national rankings often fail to take into account a school’s resources.

“The question is: How efficient are our institutions? What are we getting for the money?” Woodley said. “But I want to be very clear, it’s not very useful to make excuses based on funding. We want our schools to over-perform, but there is a limit.”

In an increasingly crowded college ranking market, Forbes attempts to distinguish itself from other rankings by focusing more heavily on criteria measured after students have graduated including satisfaction with their professors, their post-graduation salary and the amount of student loan debt they carry.

The Forbes methodology is a departure from the annual U.S. News & World Report listings. U.S. News ranks schools based on many traditional measures including graduation rates, student retention and faculty-to-student ratio. But the publication also rates schools on how much money they raise, the amount of money spent on facilities and how they are viewed by peer institutions.

Critics argue that the U.S. News rankings can be manipulated simply by spending.

In years past a growing number of academics have endorsed the ratings used by the Washington Monthly Magazine, which looks at the test scores of incoming students, the number of students who qualify for financial aid and the number of students enrolled in classes full-time versus part-time.

One of the most highly regarded, but least publicized rankings are the National Science Foundations’s, which measure the amount of competitive grant funding schools get from the federal government.

In higher education circles, the National Science Foundation’s rankings are seen as giving a broad look at a university’s academic growth over time.