Diversity has once again been pegged as a weak point for Elon University, this time from a national point of view.
U.S. News and World Report released the 2015 edition of its annual college rankings Sept. 9, and Elon placed first in three categories among master’s-level universities in the South: best overall school, undergraduate teaching and innovation. The university also earned high marks in percentage of students studying abroad.
“This year’s rankings by U.S News, which are partially based on the results of a national survey of higher education leaders, demonstrate the reputation Elon has for excellence in teaching and innovation,” said Vice President of University Communications Dan Anderson.
Elon fell short, though, in rankings of diversity.
Its campus diversity index, which can range from zero to one depending on the percentage of ethnic minorities on campus, was a 0.27, below the average among similar colleges. The highest score on this year's index was a 0.68 tie between Marymount University and University of North Carolina-Pembroke, while the lowest was Hampton University’s 0.10.
Additionally, Elon placed last in its category in economic diversity. U.S. News’ criterion for the category was the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants during the 2013-14 school year, and only 9 percent of Elon students received Pell Grants that year.
Elon also tied with 25 other universities for last in percentage of international students, with 2 percent. St. Thomas University in Miami placed first with 18 percent of its student body made up of international students.
Dean of Multicultural Affairs Randy Williams, Jr. said in an email it was not a surprise Elon topped the list in undergraduate teaching and other areas, but he added that the rankings are “no indication of perfection.”
“Our student ethnic and economic diversity are areas for improvement,” Williams said. “Though many of the schools ahead of Elon in the rankings are public institutions, which tend to be more diverse than private ones, we are ambitious in creating a more diverse community for the richness it brings to the enterprise of education and not simply for rankings.”
According to Williams, Elon’s Class of 2019 is more than 1 percent higher in terms of ethnic diversity than the previous class, and international enrollment has also increased.
As for economic diversity, Anderson said Elon is attempting to increase support for Pell-eligible students through the 10-year Elon Commitment strategic plan, and will focus on building its endowment in its next fundraising campaign to promote those efforts.
“The size of Elon’s endowment, relative to peer private universities, limits Elon’s financial aid resources,” Anderson said. “This makes recruiting Pell Grant-eligible students and international students more difficult.”
Anderson said “good progress” has been made in Elon’s goal of tripling international student enrollment through the Elon Commitment plan.
The U.S. News and World Report has been ranking colleges in terms of academics since 1983-diversity rankings have been a recent addition. The rankings are geared toward prospective students rather than a way for universities to size up their competition.
"Taking into account how well a school supports its students from freshman year through graduation is important," said U.S. News’ chief content officer Brian Kelly in a press release. "To find the best fit, students should consider a range of factors, from financial aid offerings and location to campus size and majors. The process can be overwhelming, but our rankings and advice content are a great place to start."
Freshman Graham Kulig said people he knew brought up Elon’s rankings to him once he made his college decision, but it wasn’t a factor to him before that.
“It’s nice to hear people say, ‘I heard Elon was ranked the most beautiful campus’ or that they saw it was ranked the best college in the South, but I didn’t really look into it,” he said.
Sophomore Ben Driscoll said he prioritized the reputation of the School of Communications above the overall ranking of the university, since he’s a communications major. He added that U.S. News’ measures of diversity don’t account for individual experiences.
“Diversity isn’t only based on socioeconomic background or something similar,” he said. “All of us come from different places and have different perspectives on things. I think that can also be considered diversity.”
The rankings have not been immune to criticism from the media, either. In a 2013 article for The Atlantic titled “Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings,” John Tierney wrote that much of an institution’s ranking comes from a reputational measure through peer assessments from college presidents and provosts instead of hard data.
“Critics say this component turns the rankings into a popularity or beauty contest, and that asking college officials to rate the relative merits of other schools about which they know nothing becomes a particularly empty exercise because a school’s reputation is driven in large part by–you guessed it–the U.S. News rankings,” he wrote.