THE BLOG

Taking a Close Look at the U.S. News Historically Black Colleges and University Rankings

09/29/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

Five years ago, U.S. News and World Report started ranking Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Rather than comparing HBCUs to majority institutions, the media stronghold ranked the historic institutions against their peers.

Rankings in general are problematic, especially when peer assessment counts for 25 percent of the ranking. They become even more problematic when institutions are compared to those with which they have nothing in common. These types of comparisons take place in the general U.S. News rankings and also within the HBCU rankings. Although all HBCUs have at their core a mission dedicated to the racial uplift of African Americans, these institutions as a group are wonderfully diverse.

With those caveats, I though it would be interesting to take a look at the change in rankings among HBCUs from last year to this year. In 2011 the top 15 HBCUs, according to U.S. News, were:

1. Spelman College
2. Howard University
3. Morehouse College
4. Hampton University
5. Tuskegee University
6. Xavier University of Louisiana
7. Fisk University
8. Claflin University
9. Dillard University
10. Tougaloo College
11. North Carolina Central University
12. Florida A&M University/North Carolina A&T State University
14. South Carolina State University
15. Jackson State University/Elizabeth City State University

In comparison, the 2012 top 15 HBCUs are:

1. Spelman College
2. Howard University
3. Morehouse College
4. Hampton University
5. Fisk University/Tuskegee University/Xavier University of Louisiana
8. Claflin University
9. Dillard University
10. Florida A&M University
11. North Carolina A&T State University/North Carolina Central University
13. Johnson C. Smith University
14. Elizabeth City State University
15. Delaware State University/South Carolina State University

With a quick glance, I notice a few interesting things about the HBCU rankings. First, of course, the top four institutions stayed the same. This makes sense as these HBCUs have the largest endowments (highly resourced institutions typically fare well in rankings), they have excellent reputations (25 percent of the ranking formula), and they are very skilled at retaining and graduating their students.

Next I notice that three private HBCUs -- Fisk, Tuskegee, and Xavier -- have leveled off in terms of the rankings. Of these three, Fisk is most questionable. In fact, when these rankings came out, a friend from an HBCU called me to ask how Fisk, with its accreditation woes, financial problems, and low enrollments could be ranked more highly than her institution. The fact is that Fisk does a good job retaining students, has strong graduation rates, has excellent faculty, has a devoted alumni base, is relatively selective compared to many HBCUs, and continues to have a good reputation, based in part on its history, among its peers. All of these factors contribute to its high ranking; Fisk climbed up two spots this year.

As we move down the rankings, the next thing I notice is that public HBCUs are becoming much stronger and I would predict that in a few years, they will round out the top 10 HBCUs in the U.S. Newsrankings. Of note, three of these public HBCUs are in North Carolina. Although public HBCUs in North Carolina have suffered from vast inequities in terms of state funding, they have strong leaders who are employing innovative approaches to increasing retention and graduation. They are also creating new programs in the sciences to attract students and federal grant dollars.

Another item that stands out when reviewing the rankings is the difference between the ranked list of HBCUs and the unranked alphabetical list of HBCUs. However, I can't take credit for noticing these differences. I was reviewing the rankings with my colleague Nelson Bowman III, who works at Prairie View A&M University, and he noticed something interesting about the lists. Of those HBCUs on the ranked list, 82 percent completed all 12 categories of the U.S. News survey. Of those on the unranked list, only 31 percent completed all of the categories. In the end, those HBCUs that had better access to data and took the time to fill out the survey in full, were more highly ranked. This fact leads me to ask whether or not the rankings are accurate (not that I put enormous faith in rankings). If all HBCUs completed the survey in full, we'd have a much better understanding of their standing relative to their peers.

Lastly, rankings are controversial and these HBCU rankings are no different. Some HBCU presidents wonder why U.S. News is ranking their institutions. Others think that HBCUs should create their own ranking system. Still others do not see the value in rankings at all. Regardless, the rankings are not going away and they are being used regularly by students as they try to make informed decisions about where to attend to college.