University of Florida, New College, stumble in latest national rankings

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Several Florida schools, including the flagship University of Florida and the small liberal arts college Gov. Ron DeSantis transformed into a conservative institution, fell in the latest national rankings unveiled Monday by U.S. News and World Report.

The new standings, tweaked this year by the organization, knocked University of Florida out from its coveted position as a top-five public university — a status that has been highly touted by DeSantis and state leaders who have sparked substantial changes recently to Florida’s higher education system.

Despite some schools dipping in the public rankings, UF improved its overall national standing by one spot and other colleges, such as Florida International University, reached the highest peaks to date.

But there was bad news for New College of Florida, which dipped 24 spots to a tie for 100 in the standings for liberal arts schools amid an overhaul triggered by DeSantis appointing conservative trustees to the struggling campus, Florida’s smallest state university.

Florida officials, in weighing the new standings meant to help students decide where to pursue their degrees, boasted that the state has six schools in the top 100 ranked public colleges. But they didn’t mention that several schools dropped in the rankings.

“The U.S. News and World Report rankings are another endorsement that Florida is leading the nation in higher education,” university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said in a statement Monday.

The 2023-2024 Best Colleges rankings signaled significant shifts for many Florida schools that was prompted — at least in part — by U.S. News and World Report undergoing the “most significant methodological change in the rankings’ history.”

This year, the rankings put a heightened emphasis on “social mobility and outcomes for graduating college students.”

That means, according to the organization, more than half of a school’s rank now depends on measures tied to “success in enrolling and graduating students from all backgrounds with manageable debt” and the “post-graduate success” of students. Additionally, five factors were removed this year: class size, faculty with terminal degrees, alumni giving, high school class standing and the proportion of graduates who borrow federal loans.

Florida schools felt these changes in different ways.

University of Florida, for one, dropped a spot to No. 6 in public university rankings. University of South Florida fell three spots to 45 while Florida State University also went down three notches to 23.

Although the U.S. News rankings are a barometer often praised by Florida leaders, the latest standings have left some school officials questioning how much weight they should have in the future.

At FSU, for example, President Richard McCullough characterized the school’s drop, after being ranked in the top 20 for four straight years, as “odd” and part of a “rankings chaos” in higher education.

“I think it’s a wake-up call in terms of the outside world’s dependence on these rankings as a measure of quality,” McCullough said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by UF President Ben Sasse, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska who has scrutinized how much emphasis is put on rankings. Sasse described himself as a “moderate” on the issue and recently propositioned faculty on “what is the north star of things we organize around” — how UF should measure success — if not the standings. There are other rankings outside of U.S. News, such as the Wall Street Journal, which ranked University of Florida as its top public university.

“I don’t think we should defer and outsource our judgements about the most important things to whatever a given thing a rating agency happens to measure,” Sasse said last month during an address to UF faculty. “Because the rating agencies, say U.S. News and World report, could go bankrupt, or they could change their algorithms. And I don’t think we start with an assumption that whatever they’re measuring is exactly the right set of issues.”

Still, the latest U.S. News rankings show improvement at schools like Florida International University, which rose from 72 to 64, tying the University of Central Florida. Florida A&M University ranked 91, improving by 12 spots to reach the top 100 public university mark for the first time. Florida Atlantic University improved by 20 positions to rank 112.

And in the overall ranking of national universities, combining both public and private, University of Florida improved by one spot to reach 28, followed by FSU, which jumped two schools to rank 53. Florida Atlantic University jumped 53 positions and ranked 209 in this category.

University leaders credited the DeSantis administration and Florida Legislature for committing state cash for colleges to help them improve in the rankings. The 2023-24 budget includes $100 million specifically for UF, FSU and USF, the state’s top research schools, and $100 million specifically to recruit and retain faculty — a priority of the governor.