Butler ranked as the No. 1 regional university in the Midwest — so what?

An announcement of the ranking released by Butler, photo courtesy of butler.edu.

EMMA BEAVINS | OPINION CO-EDITOR| ebeavins@butler.edu

Yet again, Butler University has been named the No. 1 Regional University in the Midwest, as President Danko was sure to remind students in an egregiously early-morning Sept. 14 email. 

The ranking comes from the annual U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges ranking. For the past three years I’ve wondered what exactly the U.S. News and World Report rankings mean, for whom they are intended and what implications they have for Butler students. 

The university administration and marketing departments clutch this No. 1 ranking like it’s everything, like this outside media organization has something intelligible to say about the university that we attend. After 30 years of producing the report, the data analytics team at U.S. News and World Report stays strictly within its defined metric boundaries — they do not claim to know everything about the universities whom they rank. But Butler’s insistence that this list is an end-all be-all determiner of the education we’re receiving is … strange. 

Per the president’s email, Danko seeks to highlight the work of Butler faculty for making Butler a household name. To that end, I agree completely. It does imbue a certain amount of pride to attend a small school in Indianapolis who ranked No. 19 in first-year experience, No. 23 in senior capstone experience and No. 28 in “study abroad” for all universities nationally. 

Now, I don’t mean to be blasphemous — though I know some people will take me as such — but the rankings kind of blew me away. Part of my reservation could stem from the fact that I grew up in the Indianapolis area, so to me, Butler remains a part of a specific, local context without a nationally-recognized name.

Because of my peers’ and my questions and skepticism, I decided to take a deep dive into the endless embedded hyperlinks and Byzantine site that is the U.S. News and World Report’s 2021 Best Colleges list.

These are the essential things I think you need to know: 

Butler is the No. 1 regional university in the Midwest 

The Best Colleges report makes distinctions between national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional universities and regional colleges, among other categories. The rankings have been methodically parsed to ensure comparisons are fairly made to similar institutions.

The regional universities category compares schools who offer a broad range of undergraduate programs, a few graduate programs but no doctoral programs — immediately excluding major players even in Indiana like IU and Notre Dame, who have robust graduate degree options. Regional universities are, essentially, the other Butler-esque schools. The regional universities category is further broken down by region — North, South, Midwest and West. 

With a much narrower field, the other fish in the pond, so to speak, become a little less threatening. 

Other schools that ranked well in the “Regional Universities in the Midwest” category were John Carroll University in Ohio, Calvin University in Michigan and at No. 5, our beloved basketball rival, Xavier University. 

Competing against a shorter list of contenders does not make the ranking less credible, data-driven or noteworthy, but it does change the tone, and, perhaps, its implications. This ranking conveys something very specific, and as junior marketing major Kelly Stone said, this is a critical distinction.

“I think it’s kind of important, because …  anyone who’s kind of looked into it would know that doesn’t mean we’re No. 1 just in the country or number one overall in the Midwest,” Stone said. “We have Notre Dame, we have Northwestern in the Midwest, there’s the University of Michigan …  because we don’t have a full graduate program, we aren’t going to be on the same list as some of those larger universities.”

Factors considered in the ranking 

U.S. News and World Report has gads of information on their website about how they calculate the rankings. Here are the biggest categories taken into consideration for the Regional Universities rankings in the order they appear on the U.S. News and World Report’s website: 

Graduation and retention rates — 22%

Social mobility — 5%

Graduation rate performance — 8%

Undergraduate academic reputation — 20%

Faculty resources for the 2019-2020 academic year — 20%

Student selectivity —  7%

Financial resources per student — 10%

Average alumni giving rate — 3%

Graduate indebtedness — 5%

Each of these categories is further divided to result in a total of 17 categories. Because Butler gives little to no insight on how the rankings are calculated, I was intrigued by these categories. The two that immediately caught my attention were the “social mobility” and “undergraduate academic reputation” categories. 

According to the Rankings Methodology page on the U.S. News website, social mobility is determined by the number of students who receive Pell Grants, a subsidy from the U.S. government for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need, and graduate in six years. Graduation rates of Pell Grant-receiving students are compared between that of other universities and compared to non-Pell Grant-receiving students at the same and other universities.

Interestingly enough, this category has recently been made into its own distinct list — acknowledging institutions who graduate Pell Grant recipients at the highest rates. While U.S. News notes on their website that students who come from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to finish college, to me, social mobility seems like an out-of-date term that reinforces the capitalist “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. 

The undergraduate academic reputation, otherwise labeled as “expert opinion” on the U.S. News website, is based on a peer-evaluation survey given to faculty at participating institutions. Among those polled are presidents, provosts and deans of admissions who rank schools with which they are familiar on a scale of one to five. U.S. News surveyed roughly 4800 academics and in 2020 had a response rate of 36.4%. They used two-year aggregated data to devise the ranking. 

A fifth of the total makeup of the ranking is based on a university’s reputation in the academic world. While this seems disproportionately subjective, Robert Morse, chief data strategist of U.S. News and World Report, claimed in an email to The Butler Collegian that the peer-evaluations provide information that reflects the real-world applicability of the degree. 

“80% of a school’s ranking in the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories is based on a formula that uses statistical measures of academic quality, such as graduation rates, social mobility, graduate indebtedness, faculty information and admissions data,” Morse said. “Peer assessments are subjective, but they are also important: A diploma from a distinguished college can help a graduate get a job and gain admission to top-notch graduate programs.”

While both the “social mobility” and “expert opinion” categories could be ethically sticky, I do appreciate U.S. News’ overall transparency in their methodology. 

Butler as an innovative institution

In addition to ranking as the No. 1 regional university in the Midwest, Butler tied for the No. 1 Most Innovative in the same category, along with Alverno College — a private, all women’s college in Milwaukee. Alverno ranked No. 65 regional university in the Midwest, No. 1 for undergraduate teaching and No. 46 best value school. I’m not sure how that works, exactly, but hey, I didn’t make the list.

According to the U.S. News website, this category is also based on a peer assessment survey completed by presidents, provosts and deans of admissions. So for example, Danko, Kathryn Morris and other Butler administrators would have been asked to nominate up to 15 schools like Xavier, John Carroll and Calvin University who have made the most innovative improvements in recent years. This could include curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities. The schools that receive at least seven nominations are then ranked in descending order by number of nominations. 

At first I wondered what — if anything — at Butler was innovative. Being in the business school and a tour guide, however, Stone had a clear idea.

In addition to the career mentor program, First Year Business Experience course, and Real Business Experience course, Stone said the newer buildings like Irvington, Lacy School of Business and the upcoming Gallahue renovations draw prospective students to campus. 

“One thing I’ll mention on tours is how the building the business building was built with like no desks, it’s all tables, because they really want to push the concept of  collaboration and teamwork, which in general is very innovative because that’s a much more prevalent thing in the business world nowadays,” Stone said. 

So even if all of us students in LAS — inside the more “traditional” academy if you want to put it that way — don’t understand what it means to be an innovative university, at least the business students do. 

Implications of the rankings

As current students, we don’t get much out of the fact that Butler is ranked on the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges list. Nothing about our immediate situation changes, and Danko doesn’t walk around campus with a plate of homemade cookies to congratulate anyone. We might get a little school pride out of it, but that’s about it. 

So why exactly does this ranking matter and where does the information go? When I emailed Lori Greene, Butler’s vice president of enrollment management, she said this kind of information can help prospective students make a decision about where to go to school. 

“Prospective students are introduced to many aspects of Butler University that perhaps they didn’t know about before, and likewise, they can go to our website or set up a campus visit to learn more about areas of excellence such as undergraduate teaching or research or study abroad programs or outcomes in terms of graduation rates and placement,” Greene said. 

Stone said that while this year she hasn’t heard much about the rankings on campus or elsewhere, last year she saw a graphic on her high school counselling office’s Instagram page. 

“I went to a tiny, tiny high school… [and] Butler was not a university that came through my high school at all,” Stone said. “I noticed last year they posted the Butler ranking thing. And I did a double take because I was like oh my gosh, I’m the only person from my high school that goes to Butler…  that made me think, okay, so like, maybe high school counselors are paying attention to the ranking.” 

A professor in the College of Communications suggested that the ranking could be useful in terms of faculty and trustee recruitment as well. 

COVID-19 policies and racial justice initiatives

I was sorely disappointed to find out that the U.S. News Best Colleges ranking for this year did not take a university’s COVID-19 policies or racial justice initiatives into account when doing the rankings. Morse, the chief data strategist for U.S. News, confirmed this to me in an email.

“It’s important to note that the data in the 2021 edition of Best Colleges was not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Morse said. “However, U.S. News understands that the schools and their students have been affected by this public health crisis. We’re currently reviewing our strategies for future U.S. News education rankings where COVID-19 may have had an impact.”

In part, this makes sense. For one thing, 80% of the rankings are based on hard, statistical data. It would be much more difficult to compare universities based on subjective and campus-context specific policies. And if the Butler administration is any indicator, colleges are likely having a hard time with self-reflection on their anti-racist commitments.

Moreover, the data for this ranking had to be submitted by each institution to U.S. News back in April, before many universities had comprehensive policies for anything that’s going on right now. 

That type of ranking may not ever be possible. However, Butler should still consider the time and the place to promote any PR that could be misleading. Danko’s email came at a time when I felt like Butler was doing everything — to put it nicely — wrong. COVID-19 testing was and is a mess, Homecoming was anything but “At Home” and we have yet to see anything concrete come out of the supposed ongoing evaluation of BUPD.

I guess that’s what finally sent me over the edge — the fact that Danko sent out this email in a time when Butler’s ranking is not what’s on people’s mind. And while it may have been thrust into the ether to raise student and faculty morale, this communication really missed the mark.

It was a bone-throwing, “go fetch!” kind of moment. 

This ranking could have been presented in a way that both acknowledged Butler’s achievement and recognized the work we still must to do to make this campus safe and equitable. It could have acknowledged that while we may be “No. 1” of all the Butler-esque schools in the Midwest, we are far from perfect. We have issues of grave importance at hand. 

Instead, upon searching back through my email archive to last fall, I realized Danko’s email was nearly identical to those in years past. Same structure, same sweeping generalizations but with a vague acknowledgement of “this challenging time.” In typical Butler marketing fashion, “reading the room” was absolutely not possible.

For Stone’s part, she doesn’t see the ranking as that big of a deal anyway. 

“I feel like when you’re really concerned about the ranking of a school, at least from my perspective and from what I’ve gathered, you’re looking at the top dogs, the Ivy Leagues… whereas I feel like when people tour here… you’re really looking for an overall college experience.” 

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