Addressing our rankings and reputation

Dear Colleagues,

College and university rankings are a big business and a point of institutional pride among faculty, staff, students, alumni, and corporations. Many families pay attention to national rankings and perceptions when choosing where to attend. Most large corporations — including many in Washington — use college rankings as part of their decision-making about which institutions to recruit their workforce. Prospective graduate students often consider a university’s reputation when selecting where to pursue a professional or graduate degree. New and prospective faculty members pay attention to rankings when determining where to take a faculty position. In short, university rankings impact our ability to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students.

Over the last few months, many in the WSU community have expressed concerns regarding the decline in some of our national rankings, particularly in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings. Other members of the university community have called into question the validity of “chasing” rankings whose methodology may run counter to our land-grant mission. While I do not believe rankings should drive how we educate or serve our communities, we need to ensure that we are doing everything practically possible to improve our national reputation and improve WSU’s rankings.

WSU is recognized as a top-tier research institution with a talented faculty in several different measures. Generally, WSU does well in quantitative rankings that are not heavily dependent on institutional reputation. For example, in fiscal year 2021, WSU was ranked 78th out of 909 public and private institutions for total Research and Development Expenditures, placing us in the top 10% of institutions nationally (National Science Foundation (NSF) Higher Education Research and Development funding). This ranking reaffirms what we know to be true about our university community — that WSU researchers are leaders in their respective fields.

In assessing the methodologies of rankings where WSU has fallen short of expectations, it is apparent that they rely heavily on subjective measurements. U.S. News & World Report, for example, bases 20% of its analysis — the largest single variable in their ranking criteria — on results from a peer assessment survey intended to evaluate undergraduate academic reputation. In this survey, university leaders across the United States are given a list of institutions and asked to rank their perception of those institutions’ reputations. This methodology has adversely affected our placement in national rankings. While I don’t believe this evaluation to be particularly helpful or reflective of the academic experience at WSU, I recognize that our reputation needs improvement, and reputation matters to our stakeholders, including current and potential students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors.

It’s worth noting that, in specific areas, WSU performs well in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. As an example, several of our online offerings were ranked among the best in the nation for 2023. WSU Global Campus ranked 18th in the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs category, with business and psychology undergraduate programs coming in at 12th and 16th, respectively. Several of our online graduate programs also received distinction: WSU’s online MBA program from the Carson College of Business was ranked 27th in the nation’s Best Online MBA programs, and the online graduate engineering programs offered by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture were ranked 31st in the Best Online Engineering Programs category.

One of the other challenges that has impacted our national reputation has been the lack of a comprehensive and sustainable marketing campaign for Washington State University over the past 15 years. During the Great Recession of 2008, WSU was forced to reduce its marketing budget when state funding decreased precipitously. There has been no substantial recurring investment since that time, which has affected our ability to convey the many success stories surrounding Washington State University impacts and achievements.

So, what are we doing to address and enhance our national reputation?

First, we have invested nearly $1.2M in discretionary, one-time resources toward the establishment of a comprehensive marketing campaign focused on telling the WSU story within the higher education community and within the state of Washington.

These funds have allowed WSU to secure a contract with BVK, a nationally-recognized brand marketing firm with experience in higher education, to assist the university in rebuilding its marketing program. University Marketing & Communications will work with BVK to conduct quantitative market research to benchmark the university’s reputation and develop a long-term plan to bolster brand awareness and reputation.

Second, we want to be sure we are providing the best possible data and information to national ranking organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, to ensure WSU is appropriately recognized. To achieve this, Provost Elizabeth Chilton and I have formed a task force that will conduct a sensitivity analysis on the ranking factors used by U.S. News & World Report. The Office of Strategy, Planning, and Analysis (OSPA) will purchase a one-year subscription to gain access to their undergraduate rankings data, reports, and methodology. Through the task force, members of the OSPA team will work with Faculty Senate representatives and others to evaluate the results and provide subsequent recommendations. I anticipate the completion of their work early in the fall semester.

Third, we are contracting with The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to tell the WSU story to the broader higher education community. You should start to see more of a digital WSU presence beginning next month.

I want to be clear that our strategy is to tell our stories of success broadly and professionally on a state and national level. Rather than chase rankings, we are looking to improve in key strategic areas that will enhance the visibility and perception of the work we are doing at every corner of our system. WSU remains fully committed to providing excellent teaching, conducting cutting-edge research, and offering valuable services to our communities. While improved rankings may result from our cumulative efforts, our primary goal is always to fulfill our mission and values.

Thank you for all that you do. I will keep you informed as we begin to see returns on the initiatives described above. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out with any questions or suggestions you have on other ways we can work together to improve WSU’s reputation.

As always, Go Cougs!

President, WSU System