Evaluating year over year change in U.S. News & World Report rankings of National Universities.  Which universities improved the most in 2015?

The latest U.S. News & World Report National University Rankings were released recently, and the higher education world gave a collective sigh – some from exasperation, some from excitement. The yearly ritual of answering questions about where their university ranks relative to others in the U.S. is rarely enjoyable, but the reality is that international students continue to use these types of rankings to help them make those crucial early decisions during the application process. From an international student perspective, the rankings list gives them a quick snapshot of a lot of quality universities, and helps compare them to one another in a way that’s pretty easy to understand.; These lists, along with college profile sites, such as The College Board’s BigFuture page, are incredibly popular outside the United States. Knowing that the popularity isn’t declining (even if it’s only for a few weeks every October) we wanted to evaluate the rankings based on year over year change. One thing you’ll notice are the usual institutions at the top. In fact, the top 10 don’t really change throughout the years. Analyzing year-to-year changes among the top 10 really means shuffling around the usual suspects. Even going as far back as 1912 when the federal government attempted to rate universities, most of today’s top 10 list were rated as “First Class” institutions. The real question is, for those universities outside the top 10, how possible is it to improve position from year-to-year? Below you’ll find the top 200 universities, ranked from 1 to 200 (going left to right on the x axis) and change in ranking (going up and down the y axis) from 2013 to 2015. Each dot represents a university and its current spot in the 2015 rankings. The location of the dot on the y axis is the difference in ranking from 2013 to 2015. For example, click on the green dot ranked 76th in the nation and located above the 20 on the y axis – University of Massachusetts Amherst. Or, choose one or two states to evaluate in isolation.

We’ve highlighted some notable outliers in the graph below. Among the top 40 institutions, Stanford improved the most spots going from #6 to #4 (like we said, not much change at the top of the list). Northeastern University improved 14 spots from #56 to #42. Among the top 200 universities, the University of South Dakota made the biggest improvement going from #199 to #168.Howard University fell in the rankings to #145, dropping 25 spots in the last two years. You’ll notice that as you go through the list from left to right that the probability of change is much greater. As we noted earlier, those grey dots that represent the top universities are clustered pretty close to the axis – meaning little change. But for a university in the top 150, what can one reasonably expect regarding change in position from year to year? The lower the ranking group, the higher the average change. This isn’t a shocking revelation, but it does confirm our assumptions that universities can still dramatically change their rankings – for good or for bad.