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Thursday, August 28, 2014

How Northeastern University Gamed the U.S. News Rankings to Rise From #162 to #49

Northeastern UniversityBoston Magazine, How to Game the College Rankings:

[Richard] Freeland swept into Northeastern [in 1996] with a brand-new mantra: recalibrate the school to climb up the ranks [from #162 in U.S. News]. “There’s no question that the system invites gaming,” Freeland tells me. “We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].” He directed university researchers to break the U.S. News code and replicate its formulas. He spoke about the rankings all the time—in hallways and at board meetings, illustrating his points with charts. He spent his days trying to figure out how to get the biggest bump up the charts for his buck. He worked the goal into the school’s strategic plan. “We had to get into the top 100,” Freeland says. “That was a life-or-death matter for Northeastern.” ...

For those at Northeastern, breaking into the U.S. News top 100 was like landing a man on the moon, but Freeland was determined to try. Reverse-engineering the formulas took months; perfecting them took years. “We could say, ‘Well, if we could move our graduation rates by X, this is how it would affect our standing,’” Freeland says. “It was very mathematical and very conscious and every year we would sit around and say, ‘Okay, well here’s where we are, here’s where we think we might be able to do next year, where will that place us?’”

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. ... “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” ...

In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. ...

With unwavering dedication to the rankings, Freeland jockeyed his school up 42 spots to 120 over eight years. Though impressive, getting to the elusive top 100 remained Freeland’s ultimate goal, but he had “gamed” the system as far as he could on his own. To break into the top 100, he’d need more intel on the news magazine’s methodology. He would also need U.S. News’s complicity. “We were trying to move the needle,” Freeland says, “and we felt there were a couple of ways in which the formula was not fair to Northeastern.” ...

Freeland landed in Morse’s U.S. News office that day in 2004 to discuss, among other things, how the publication handled students enrolled in NU’s co-op program. Long the cornerstone of the university’s curriculum, the program let students take breaks from their studies in order to gain professional experience in their chosen fields for months at a time. NU maintained that this jobs program was critical to its graduates’ success—it was one of the school’s greatest strengths. Unfortunately, Morse counted co-op students in enrollment data, making it look like more students were using university resources than actually were. This brought down the U.S. News “financial resources” criterion, thereby hurting NU’s rank. From 2002 to 2003, that was the only metric in which NU actually did worse.

Though Morse initially wouldn’t go along with Freeland’s request to change the magazine’s methodology to address Northeastern’s co-op, Freeland emerged from the U.S. News office more confident than ever that NU could crack the top 100. Morse had agreed with Freeland’s overall reasoning and helped him better understand the criteria. It was just enough insight for Freeland to work with. The following year, NU’s ranking advanced to 115. ...

The day after Freeland retired in August 2006, he was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard when he heard the news: The U.S. News rankings were out, and Northeastern had broken through the top 100, all the way to number 98. In his decade as president, Freeland had lifted the school up more than 60 spots. ... Leery of being misunderstood, Freeland tells me, “It may have seemed a little foolish at the time or a little shallow at the time, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When Freeland retired in 2006, NU trustees saw in [Joseph] Aoun the right man to keep the rankings machine rolling. ... In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. ...

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA.  ...

Under Aoun, in an apparent effort to score rankings points by lowering the percentage of accepted students, NU’s admissions department received a mandate: Increase applications at home and abroad. ... “They poured a ton of money into admission recruiting,” says a former NU admissions officer. ... 

There were other tricks, as well. In 2009, NU stopped requiring SAT scores from students attending international high schools. By removing a barrier to foreign students, who typically score lower if they take the SATs at all, NU boosted its application numbers without jeopardizing its overall testing average. Those foreign students, ineligible for federal aid, also tend to pay full freight. Since 2006, the percentage of international undergraduates has jumped from just under 5 to nearly 17. In the 2012 to 2013 school year, NU had the most international students of any university in New England, and the 10th most in the country.

Aoun also began using spring enrollment to his advantage. In 2007 the school introduced, a program that invites students with lower grades and SAT scores to spend their first semester abroad and begin their on-campus experience in the spring. U.S. News does not collect data for spring entrants, so those students’ lower grades and scores are excluded from the rankings. Editor Brian Kelly explains that U.S. News doesn’t require spring data because the federal government doesn’t either, but he concedes, “It’s possible that is a gaming window.” ...

Aoun’s tactics seem to have worked. Last year, Northeastern received its highest number of applications, almost 50,000 for 2,800 spots. That’s nearly five times more than in 1990. Enrolled students were more qualified than ever before, with average SAT scores up 22 points from the previous year. ...

Serving as the president of a top-50 school has its perks. Aoun lives in a 14-room townhouse overlooking Boston Common that the school purchased his first year, now worth $8.9 million. A chauffeur drives him to campus. Aoun’s salary increases each year, and in 2011, he was the second-highest-paid college president in the country, at $3.1 million, though that included a $2 million retirement supplement. (Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, came in 54th that year, with total compensation just under $900,000.) In addition to Aoun, seven Northeastern employees made over half a million dollars that year.

Northeastern has essentially created a blueprint for any school that can stomach following it, but gaming the U.S. News rankings has its costs. 

Slate, Is Northeastern University Denying Professors Tenure to Improve its National Rankings?

(Hat Tip: Brian Leiter.)

Law School Rankings, Legal Education | Permalink


A nice, accurate retelling of the obsessive rankings-over-quality and dollars-over-students venality that I remember from my days at the law school.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 28, 2014 7:31:23 PM

the wire named this action perfectly: "juking the stats."

Posted by: terry malloy | Aug 29, 2014 4:44:38 AM

But Northeastern probably belonged in the top 100 to begin with.

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 29, 2014 5:12:12 AM

If US News would only use criteria that students care about for the rankings, then the obsession might actually be a good thing. Such criteria would likely include: quality of entering student body, admission rates, graduation rates, employment outcomes, fellowship recipients, student publications, admissions to advanced degree programs, etc. It could also include some faculty related criteria, such as publications in top journals, book sales, Fulbright scholarships, grant money, patents, etc.

Some level of transparency and consensus about what constitutes an elite college is important given the prices these days. Is it really worth it to shell the money out for Boston College, Tufts, Bates, Trinity, Vanderbilt, Scripps, etc? It is a legitimate question, and worthwhile rankings could provide some helpful guidance.

Absolutely, under no circumstances, should expenditures be considered in the rankings. These just inflate prices and provide nothing that students desire.

Posted by: JM | Aug 29, 2014 6:57:58 AM


Hang out outside the law school building on Huntington Ave for an hour and count how many undergrads blindly walk into four lanes of traffic and an aboveground subway line, a phone in one ear and music in the other, and tell me they belong in the Top 100.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 29, 2014 7:52:08 AM