Funding, reputation key to 'U.S. News' rank
September 4, 2003, 5:00 am·
With an extra $10 billion, Penn might have a better chance of inching its way into the top three spots in U.S. News and World Report's list of college rankings.
According to experts, financial resources are one of the key criteria that differentiate schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities -- which currently occupy the top three spots in the magazine's list -- from their peers.
"You look at their list, and two things become obvious -- large endowments and reputations for quality," said Tony Pals, the public information director at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a higher education lobbying group.
While U.S. News has ranked Penn among the top 10 national universities since 1997, the University has yet to break through to the top three.
$3.4 billion -- the size of Penn's endowment as of June 2002 -- certainly seems like a lot of money. But in order to compete with the top three institutions, a little more fundraising will be necessary.
"Their endowments are astronomical," Provost Robert Barchi said in an interview last week. "There is no practical way that Penn will eclipse their endowments in the next five years."
Harvard has the largest endowment of any university -- $17.2 billion -- and a reputation to match it.
Yale's endowment is a distant second with $10.5 billion, followed by Princeton, which has $8.3 billion.
While experts agree that money certainly is not the only factor affecting the quality of an academic institution, they contend that it definitely helps.
According to Penn officials, however, the University is a primary example of a school whose endowment is not as large as it could be, but does a good job with what it has.
"We are able to compete effectively" with top universities, said Craig Carnaroli, vice president for finance and treasurer at Penn. He added jokingly, though, that the University could always use more money.
"Despite the fact that we are not as well endowed as our peers, Penn is able to attract a caliber of faculty and student body that allow it to be considered among these elite universities," Carnaroli said.
However, according to Alvin Sanoff, the former managing editor of America's Best Colleges, if Penn wants to break through to the top three, it will take continuing efforts to increase its already stellar faculty, in order to boast a teaching staff that is "second to none."
Also, Penn must "be slightly more selective with students," Sanoff said.
He added that the University's admissions office is already doing a great job helping to bring up Penn's ranking.
In the last 10 years or so, "Penn has moved in a meaningful way up the ladder," he said. "To move up much more without a substantial commitment to hiring more outstanding faculty with greater resources is a challenge."
Sanoff also mentioned the importance of Penn's ability to increase its reputation, which determines 25 percent of its U.S. News score.
In the most recent set of the magazine's rankings -- released earlier this month -- Penn scored a 4.5 out of a possible 5 points in reputation, while Harvard and Princeton scored a 4.9, and Yale a 4.8.
While these differences seem small, they reflect the intense commitment necessary for Penn to break into the top three -- differences that cannot be compensated for by increased financial resources alone.
"If someone handed Penn $15 billion, it would take a while for Penn to use those resources effectively to enhance its reputation," Sanoff said.
Despite the attention that college-bound students may give to the rankings, Richard Folkers, the director of media relations at U.S. News, maintained that the purpose of the rankings is not to create competition among various colleges.
The magazine does "not consider this a horse race," he said, adding that he would not comment on what exactly a school like Penn could do to break into the top three.
According to Barchi, doing so is not even seen "as an objective for Penn."
Pals and Folkers both emphasized that the rankings should not be the determining factor in selecting a college.
The rankings are "one of several sources of information that students can use in determining their college," Pals said.
Furthermore, he added, "the top 10... institutions are separated by only a little overall difference."
"We are the first people to say a ranking alone is no way to pick a school," Folkers said.