A closer look at TCU’s drop in the 2022-23 US News & World Report rankings

The release of the 2022-23 US News & World Report (USNWR) rankings contains good news for TCU: As the university press release proclaims, TCU is in the top 100 nationally-ranked universities for the 13th year in a row. That is no small achievement and all Horned Frogs should celebrate it!

What the university press release didn’t mention is that TCU dropped from #83 last year to #89 this year. Of course, rankings don’t tell the whole story, and the US News & World Report rankings have been the focus of recent controversy. At the same time, the rankings have long been the benchmark for universities, and for my part, I rather like that they are based on a wide range of factors (if you want to dive into that, see the USNWR methodology page and their explanation of criteria and weights). Although the USNWR rankings aren’t the final word, they nevertheless convey something informative about the quality of the schools on the list.

So what about TCU’s 6-point drop? This year, several schools are tied at TCU’s former (2021-22) spot of #83: Binghamton University–SUNY, Gonzaga, Marquette, Stevens Institute of Technology, University of California–Santa Cruz, and University of Iowa. And likewise several schools are tied at TCU’s new spot of #89, including incoming Big 12 opponent BYU, as well as Colorado School of Mines, Elon, Howard, University at Buffalo–SUNY, University of California–Riverside, and University of Delaware.

That’s not bad company; these are solid, respectable schools. But is it the company that TCU seeks? A few years back, TCU’s Chancellor’s Cabinet self-identified ten peer schools. Here are those school’s rankings:

  • Wake Forest (#29)
  • Tulane (#44)
  • Villanova (#51)
  • Pepperdine (#55)
  • Santa Clara (#55)
  • George Washington (#62)
  • Syracuse (#62)
  • American (#72)
  • SMU (#72)
  • Baylor (#79)

At #89, I’m not sure most of these universities would name TCU as a peer. Indeed it seems that TCU’s peers have become its aspirants.

Going by the rankings, the ten private universities closest to TCU are Baylor (#77), Loyola Marymount (#77), Gonzaga (#83), Marquette (#83), Stevens Institute of Technology (#83), BYU (#89), Elon (#89), Howard (#89), Clark (#97), and University of San Diego (#97). With the exception of Baylor, which is a newly-minted Research 1 university positioned to ascend higher in future years, the USNWR list looks much different than TCU’s self-defined list.

What could lead to an increase in TCU’s ranking? That’s a question with many possible answers, including reduced class sizes (notably, the Board recently increased TCU’s student/faculty ratio from 13:1 to 14:1, amid budget cuts across the university’s academic units), increased alumni giving, greater graduation and retention rates (one of TCU’s strengths is that these are already high), and the beguiling standard of “undergraduate academic reputation” (which is essentially a popularity contest among senior administrators and admissions officers nationwide and, in my opinion, accounts for too much of the USNWR score).

One action worth considering is increased faculty compensation, which has accounted for 7% of the ranking in recent editions of the survey (equivalent to student selectivity of the entering class). USNWR uses this as a benchmark because, they say, “Research shows there is a link between academic outcomes and compensation of faculty.” Analysis from TCU’s Faculty Senate in 2019 and 2020 found that TCU’s compensation lags behind that of other nationally-ranked private universities, and a 2022 analysis suggests TCU’s compensation has gotten worse after rising inflation.

On the University Compensation Advisory Committee (UCAC), we have been discussing TCU’s compensation targets, which are 90% of the AAUP doctoral university median for faculty, and 80% of the median for staff. By definition, salaries below the median are below-average salaries, which seems inconsistent with TCU’s identity as a top-100 nationally-ranked university whose top strategic priority is to raise the academic profile.

Also inconsistent with that identity is TCU’s move to diminish the importance of faculty research. TCU has long been committed to the teacher-scholar model, which recognizes the equal worth of both teaching and research. As the TCU Faculty Senate put it in 2019, “Teaching and scholarly activity (such as research and creative activity) are mutually compatible and reciprocal, and exceptional performance in one inspires equal merit in the other.” But now, TCU’s Provost’s Office is far along in a plan to recalibrate tenured/tenure-track faculty workload for many units, such that 50% of faculty effort would be devoted to teaching and only 30% to research. This places faculty research closer to service work (20%) than teaching. If TCU wants to improve its scholarly reputation, drive innovation, and discover solutions to the challenges facing our world, this is not the way to go.

In the end, then, the 6-point drop should provoke discussion and raise at least a bit of concern, but given the number of schools tied around our current (#89) and former (#83) rank, it should not be a matter of overreaction either. Much more concerning are the institutional decisions that could inhibit increases in the rankings and, more importantly, the academic quality and success of the university in the future. For example, TCU remains vulnerable to the next inevitable phase of athletic conference realignment, as the power conferences have a demonstrated preference for Research 1 universities.

The time is ripe for TCU to increase investment in the core academic mission of the university: The faculty, academic and student support staff, research labs, undergraduate and graduate programs, library resources, and grant development, along with a vigorous public relations campaign that emphasizes TCU’s commitment to scholarship. Beyond the USNWR rankings, these will enhance the ability of TCU’s students, faculty, and staff to make a positive impact on our world.