High academic expectations and quality teaching landed Southwestern University at second place in the state and 92nd place nationally on Forbes magazine’s 2012 America’s Top Colleges list released Aug. 1, according to the publication.
Forbes ranks the nation’s top 650 colleges each year, and while Ivy League schools such as Princeton, Harvard and Yale regularly make the list, Southwestern made the rankings for the first time this year.
While this may be the university’s first appearance in the magazine, it consistently pulls top ranks in national studies for its academics and programs, including coming in fifth out of 269 schools in a study by Educational Benchmarking Inc. on students’ overall satisfaction with their academic experience. In another EBI study on college student life experience, Southwestern ranked 21st.
“It’s consistent. It’s not surprising as far as student satisfaction and academic quality,” said Jerry Brody, the university’s vice president of student life. “All the different measures we look at say something special is going on here.”
Nationally, Southwestern beat out familiar names such as New York University, Boston University and Tulane University. It came in second among Texas universities, finishing behind Rice University, but topped private and public schools including The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Southern Methodist University.
Each university on the list was evaluated “as a consumer might look at them,” said Forbes Editor Michael Noer in a video the publication released with the list. While some college rankings are based on factors such as reputation, alumni donations and admission selectivity, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which compiles the list for Forbes, focused on graduation rates, teacher quality, post-graduation career prospects and low student debt levels.
“I was very pleased with it. There are all different kinds of rankings ... but one of the things that’s most gratifying about the Forbes finding is, not only did we do well, it’s really based on more outcome-based things,” Provost and Dean of Faculty Jim Hunt said.
According to Forbes, with an enrollment of more than 1,300 students, Southwestern has a four-year graduation rate of 62 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 73 percent. Brody credits the numbers to the university’s teaching methods, including a low teacher-to-student ratio and professor involvement in their students’ education.
“The educational process at Southwestern is intentional. And there really is an attempt to have [students] learn in the classroom and then apply it outside the classroom,” he said.
The graduation rates also help keep debt low by saving students extra years at the university.
“There’s an assumption that because it’s public, it must be more affordable. But if you look at the average graduation rate at the public [schools] and the percentage that graduate in four years, and you look at our four-year graduation rate, well, you just saved maybe a year of tuition.”
While some students do receive outside loans and grants, approximately 98 percent pay their tuition at least partially from merit or need-based aid given through the university.
For their tuition dollars, students are taught in classes with no more than 18 students, and only by fully qualified professors. Southwestern does not employ teaching assistants or faculty fellows as instructors.
“[The ranking] was really looking at ... teaching,” Hunt said. “For me, having this ranking is a big seal of approval on the teaching here.”
The low student-to-teacher ratio allows students to access professors outside of class more readily and do hands-on, graduate school–level research as undergraduates. Currently, Southwestern does not offer graduate degrees, so all emphasis is put on undergraduate study. As a result, approximately three students are recognized by the Fulbright Foundation every year, and five to six receive National Science Foundation grants.
“This is not a school for someone who wants to remain anonymous. The students who come here either have or develop a love for learning,” Brody said.
With internships, volunteer opportunities and job possibilities, students can seek help finding options at Southwestern’s career center, which was ranked in the top 10 by the Princeton Review in 2008. The center offers more than 180 programs each year to connect students with companies, offers interview skills and resume building and encourages students to get a head start on looking at career options.
“We do a lot of programs that put them in front of people,” said Roger Young, Southwestern’s director of career services. “Employers want to see experience on a resume.”
After graduating, a majority of Southwestern students spread to Texas’ metro areas, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. Young estimated 40 percent stay in the Austin area.
“A lot of our students like to stay in the area after they graduate,” he said.
Beyond the classroom
Southwestern students are also encouraged to participate in volunteer opportunities and internships to put their schooling to the test.
“We are very intentional in trying to make sure that the students apply what they learn and test what they learn,” Brody said.
But what makes Southwestern great doesn’t just lie within the career center or the school’s walls, Brody said. Support from outside is what makes the university continue a tradition of excellence.
“It works because of the community, it works because of the campus community and surrounding community,” he said.
How the rankings work
Rankings are determined based on five core areas:
Postgraduate success 32.5 percent of each score
- Listing of alumni in "Who's Who in America"—10 percent
- Salary of alumni from www.payscale.com—15 percent
- American Leaders List—7.5 percent
Student satisfaction 27.5 percent
- Student evaluations from www.ratemyprofessor.com—17.5 percent
- Actual freshman-to-sophomore retention rates—5 percent
- Predicted versus actual freshman-to-sophomore retention rates—5 percent
Student debt 17.5 percent
- Average federal student loan debt load—10 percent
- Student loan default rates—5 percent
- Predicted versus actual percent of students taking federal loans—2.5 percent
Four-year graduation rate 11.25 percent
- Actual four-year graduation rate—8.75 percent
- Predicted versus actual four-year graduation rate—2.5 percent
Competitive awards 11.25 percent
- Student nationally competitive awards—7.5 percent
- Alumni receiving doctorates—3.75 percent
Rice University, Houston
- State rank: 1
- National rank: 37
- Student population: 6,224
- Student-to-faculty ratio: 9:1
- Total annual cost: $50,171
Southwestern University, Georgetown
- State rank: 2
- National rank: 92
- Student population: 1,347
- Student-to-faculty ratio: 10:1
- Total annual cost: $45,340
Trinity University, San Antonio
- State rank: 3
- National rank: 101
- Student population: 2,535
- Student-to-faculty ratio: 9:1
- Total annual cost: $44,422
The University of Texas at Austin
- State rank: 4
- National rank: 104
- Student population: 51,112
- Student-to-faculty ratio: 18:1
- Total annual cost: $47,426
Southern Methodist University, Dallas
- State rank: 5
- National rank: 105
- Student population: 10,982
- Student-to-faculty ratio: 11:1
- Total annual cost: $55,955
Source: Forbes magazine