Despite improving results on many different measures, the University of Washington has dropped by 10 places in a magazine’s national college ranking.

Share story

In the past six years, the University of Washington’s graduation rate has jumped significantly. The average SAT scores for its freshmen have gone up, and 92 percent of those first-year students who chose the UW were in the top 10 percent of their high-school graduating class.

So it’s a surprise to find the UW has not risen in the ranks of national universities, at least as measured by U.S. News & World Report’s Best College Rankings 2016, which were released Wednesday.

In fact, the UW has dropped 10 places in the past six years, and is now ranked 52nd among national universities.

What’s going on?

The drop would seem to say as much about the idiosyncrasies of college-ratings systems as it does about the UW’s performance, which by other metrics seems to be on the upswing.

Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News, said in an email that one of the key reasons for the drop is that the UW’s predicted graduation-rate performance is lower, when ranked and compared with other universities, than it was six years ago.

U.S. News calculates a predicted graduation rate.  If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the magazine believes the college is enhancing achievement, Morse said.

To calculate a predicted graduation rate, Morse uses a multiple regression analysis and weighs five variables, including the percentage of undergrads receiving Pell grants, the percentage of students in the top 10 or 25 percent of their high school classes, expenditures per student and mean average SAT scores.

In 2010’s rankings — a year in which the UW had one of its highest rankings in recent years — U.S. News predicted  only 71 percent of UW students would graduate on time — that is, within six years. In fact, 77 percent did so.

In the 2016 rankings, the UW’s six-year graduation rate improved to 84 percent. But 84 percent is not better than predicted — it’s only as high as U.S. News predicted it would be. That led to a loss in the university’s ranking.

Washington Monthly’s College Guide — which measures a different set of numbers and aims to be the anti-U. S. News in terms of its ranking priorities — put the UW at No. 7 in the country among national universities. Its ranking was released last month.

That magazine, based in the nation’s capital, compared actual-versus-predicted graduation rates, too, and predicted only 70 percent of UW students would graduate in six years. The UW did much better than that. (Washington Monthly used an actual graduation rate of 81 percent, which is for 2012; it’s not clear why that magazine used the older number.)

Morse said a few other factors contributed to the UW’s drop, including a slight decline in UW alumni giving in the last six years. And despite the fact the UW is admitting fewer applicants (from 61 percent in 2009 to 55 percent in 2014) and seeing an uptick in SAT scores, student selectivity fell when compared with other schools in its category, he said.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said U.S. News has ranked the UW in the high-40s or low-50s for several years now, and it has traded places with a group of similar universities from year to year. He called the small rises and falls “relatively meaningless.”

For an entirely different measure of a college’s worth, he pointed to a different ranking: the 2015 Academic Ranking of World Universities, published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a widely respected measure in academic circles. It ranks the UW the 15th-best university in the world.

Here are the rankings of other Washington schools from the U.S. News report, by category:

National universities: Washington State University, 140.

National liberal-arts schools: Whitman, 40; University of Puget Sound, 72.

Regional universities in the West: Gonzaga, 4; Seattle University, 6; Whitworth, 10; Pacific Lutheran University, 14; Seattle Pacific University, 17; Western Washington University, 21; Evergreen State College, 35; Walla Walla University, 42; Saint Martin’s University, 46; Central Washington University, 52; Eastern Washington University, 63.

Five Washington regional universities were cited for being great schools at a great price: Seattle Pacific University, 2; Whitworth, 3; Gonzaga, 4; Pacific Lutheran University, 7; and Seattle University, 13.