How Northeastern Cracked The Code To The U.S. News College Ranking System

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When Richard Freeland took over as Northeastern president in 1996 the school was ranked No. 162 by the U.S. News and World Report. (Gail Oskin/AP)
When Richard Freeland took over as Northeastern president in 1996 the school was ranked No. 162 by the U.S. News and World Report. (Gail Oskin/AP)

Princeton, Harvard and Yale — they sit Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings out Tuesday morning.

The list is a much sought-after recognition for many universities who see it as a powerful tool in the big business of higher education. Coming in at No. 42 is Northeastern University. It's a remarkable spot considering that in 1996 Northeastern sat way down at No. 162.

Much of the ascension in the rankings came under the tenure of former Northeastern president Richard Freeland. During his 10-year tenure from 1996 to 2006, Northeastern soared more than 60 spots.

How did Northeastern manage that? Max Kutner has looked into that question. He's a contributor to Boston Magazine and is out with a story looking into Northeastern's climb and the college ranking system as a whole. He joined WBUR's Morning Edition.

On the changing motivations for Northeastern’s climb:

Well it certainly began as a necessity. Richard Freeland told me that he didn't see the school surviving if it continued to get ranked poorly because it was charging so much for tuition. So he figured that if the poor reputation remained, students would simply go across town to UMass Boston.

But his former colleagues told me that as the years went on it did sort of morph into this obsession. In fact many of them started laughing when I just brought up the words “Freeland” and “rankings” in interviews. And to be fair, this was by no means the singular mission for his years at Northeastern. But when you have so many schools misreporting data and cheating to advance, you have to admire Freeland and his team who did put in the work to game the system.

On the argument in favor of the rankings: 

Basically by trimming class sizes, by hiring more impressive faculty, by improving amenities — all these things which are criteria in the U.S. News rankings — you are improving education and the overall quality of the college experience. But we do have to keep in mind the downsides such as a student might be wooed to a school with an impressive number that isn't quite right for him or her. Or students who are academically underprepared might get into a school because they're a source of revenue. And these are things that we've seen in Northeastern and other schools.

On whether colleges artificially make themselves look good by encouraging applicants:

Yes, that's definitely something we see and this is something that so many schools do now. Even just by having that common application — that increases the number of students who are going to apply and that gives you a more impressive looking admit rate. Something Northeastern has done and other schools have done is dropping the SAT requirement for foreign students. That also gets more students applying. Basically you just want as many students applying as possible, even if it means it's not the right school for those students.

On whether we should be more wary of school rankings:

I think the college rankings can be good. And there are lots of different rankings out there and people can choose the one that works best for them, but basically I believe that we shouldn't be making decisions based on that, and by “we,” I mean both schools and parents and students.

This segment aired on September 9, 2014.

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Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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