June 4, 2007
Dear Pitt Alumnus ’99:
Thank you for your inquiry about our stance on the ranking methodology employed by U.S. News & World Report. Like most of this country’s major universities, we have very mixed feelings about the U.S. News & World Report rankings. We cannot ignore them because important partners (like potential students and their families and potential faculty members and their families) take them seriously. On the other hand, we are struggling to serve our students and society without spending more money than is needed, so we would regard it as irresponsible if we were to allow the U.S. News rankings to force us to spend money in a way that we regard as otherwise inappropriate.
Our response to this dilemma has been to examine each individual component that goes into the U.S. News ranking and decide for ourselves whether paying attention to that component has programmatic merit. If it does, we have regarded them as helping us point in a good direction. When you were a student in the late 1990s, you saw us changing many things. All of them were things we thought would provide your class with a better education, and some of them helped with the U.S. News rankings. For example, we increased the number of sections of the main writing courses to keep enrollment in each section below 20. We believe that writing instructors can help their students better if we keep the class size small for that particular subject. Similarly, we have reduced enrollment per section in a few other judiciously chosen courses where we believe that instruction is more effective at lower enrollment. We could not cost effectively provide small section enrollment in all courses. U.S. News counts the fraction of a school’s sections that are under an enrollment of 20 and assigns a better ranking the larger the fraction of such sections, regardless of the subject of study in the course.
Some U.S. News decisions about ranking do seem to us to be counterproductive. I’ll give you two examples. First, they give heavy weight to how much money the university spends in delivering its programs, the more money spent the better the ranking. In no other endeavor that I’m aware of would one say that if two institutions produced the same product for significantly different costs the institution that spent more money producing the product was the better institution. Secondly, when they try to capture the issue of classes being too large, we believe that U.S. News has badly missed the point. For a variety of reasons, some introductory courses are taught in large sections at even the expensive private schools. The question is not whether there are any courses taught in large sections but rather how many such courses there are. U.S. News, by focusing on sections rather than courses, has had to pick a section size, and then by choosing a section size of 50 as their definition of “large” they have severely disadvantaged universities that are trying to keep the sections of these courses from becoming too large. So for example, our introductory science courses tend to have between 80 and 150 students in each section, resulting in about five sections of many of these courses. Other state universities, some of them close-by, might instead have one section of nearly 1000 students. We think that we can teach our students better by keeping our section sizes down by having extra sections, and we are not willing to change this. But to U.S. News, which counts sections of enrollment over 50 and reduces ranking the more such sections it finds, we have about five times as many large sections as we would have if we emulated those other state universities.
I hope the information I have just provided is helpful to you. The bottom line is that we are regularly reviewing everything we do, trying to keep costs (and thus tuition) to a minimum while providing our students with an education that is very competitive with the education provided by much more expensive universities. Rankings do matter because the value of a Pitt degree for alumni as well as prospective students can be hurt by bad rankings, but we cannot allow the rankings to skew the quality or cost of the education we offer. You saw many changes during your time as a student here, and I hope that you agree that those were good changes. And even though our tuition also increased during your time with us, I hope you recognize that we were charging a tuition that is about a third of the tuition of the good private schools (and the Commonwealth appropriation doesn’t come close to closing that gap---we are closing the gap by being very reflective about which expenses really matter for the quality of the experience we are offering).
It is good to hear from an interested alumnus like you. Since I suspect that many more alumni would like to hear the answer to your question, I will put this letter, minus your name, on my website for all of them. In the meantime, I hope that all goes well for you and that you continue to be interested in your alma mater.
James V. Maher
cc: Chancellor Mark Nordenberg
Senior Vice Chancellor Arthur Levine
Vice Chancellor Randy Juhl
Deans and Campus Presidents