How to Game the College Rankings

Northeastern University executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in higher education. Its recipe for success? A single-minded focus on just one list.

northeastern rankings

Photograph by Toan Trinh

In 1996, Richard Freeland looked across the sea of crumbling parking lots that was Northeastern University and saw an opportunity few others could. As the school’s new president, he had inherited a third-tier, blue-collar, commuter-based university whose defining campus feature was a collection of modest utilitarian buildings south of Huntington Avenue, with a sprinkling of newly planted trees.

The university had been a victim of many things, most notably federal cutbacks—rolled out in the mid-’80s—that had left many colleges scrambling for money to close their budget gaps. These cutbacks, combined with dwindling enrollment, had forced Northeastern’s previous president, Jack Curry, to slash the budget and cut 875 jobs in the early 1990s. When he announced the layoffs to his staff, Curry burst into tears. “To say it was an institution in turmoil would be an understatement,” says a vice provost from that time.

But Freeland, the man who had helped successfully launch UMass Boston over the previous two decades, had a plan. Freeland believed that if Northeastern could justify its increased costs to students and parents, it could be saved. And one gauge consistently determined a college’s value: its position on the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings. Freeland observed how schools ranked highly received increased visibility and prestige, stronger applicants, more alumni giving, and, most important, greater revenue potential. A low rank left a university scrambling for money. This single list, Freeland determined, had the power to make or break a school.

During his tenure, Curry had made improvements at Northeastern, but none of these changes could budge the school’s U.S. News ranking. Working with the mantra “Smaller but better,” Curry reduced class sizes and clamped down on admissions. He also tried to attract students from beyond Boston by creating a more welcoming campus, replacing some of the crumbling blacktops with new buildings, including a library and a recreation center. From the U.S. News perspective, these changes did little to influence the school’s reputation, the most statistically important metric in the ranking system. Curry left the school in 1996 at number 162.

Freeland swept into Northeastern with a brand-new mantra: recalibrate the school to climb up the ranks. “There’s no question that the system invites gaming,” Freeland tells me. “We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].” He directed university researchers to break the U.S. News code and replicate its formulas. He spoke about the rankings all the time—in hallways and at board meetings, illustrating his points with charts. He spent his days trying to figure out how to get the biggest bump up the charts for his buck. He worked the goal into the school’s strategic plan. “We had to get into the top 100,” Freeland says. “That was a life-or-death matter for Northeastern.”

 

Founded in the 1930s and 1940s by David Lawrence as two separate newsweeklies, U.S. News and World Report merged in 1948, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the publication printed its first cover story ranking America’s top 50 colleges. The issue happened to coincide with a sudden robust interest in higher education among the general population: Between 1970 and 1983, college enrollment increased 47 percent. What had once been considered a privilege for the wealthy or brilliant few was increasingly becoming the entry fee to the middle class. For the first time, a college degree was considered necessary, but how to choose among the thousands of institutions conferring degrees? Thus followed a new demand for unbiased, quantitative information—just as Consumer Reports rated washing machines, college rankings would serve as a first-time buyer’s guide to higher ed.

Along with the U.S. News list, the New York Times had just released Edward Fiske’s first Guide to Colleges, and in 1984, the College Board began regularly selling SAT prep books. But none had the authority of U.S. News. Billionaire publisher Mort Zuckerman seized the moment and purchased the magazine, along with its rankings franchise, in 1984.

In the offices of U.S. News & World Report in Washington, DC, Robert Morse has labored for decades, crunching numbers for college rankings (this year, they’ll be released on September 9). He spends his days staring at two computer monitors, analyzing the data that schools submitted over the summer. For a man whose life’s work triggers a yearly cage match among universities, Morse is far from intimidating. He slouches and shuffles, letting the plastic dry-cleaner clips on his shirt go unnoticed. Yet as chief data strategist and developer of U.S. News’s secret rankings sauce, Morse has helped the magazine become one of the most feared and influential voices in the world of higher education.

When the U.S. News editors first devised a formula that declared, with statistical accuracy, which school was on top, they quantified something previously thought to be intangible. For generations, colleges and universities had generally relied on a mysterious brew of prestige and reputation. Suddenly, legacies and tradition—qualities that had taken decades, and sometimes centuries, for schools to cultivate—were less important than cold, hard data. Schools that once relied on children of alumni and word of mouth were exposed by their own stats, including graduation and retention rates, admissions data (acceptance rate, average SAT score), academics (class size, number of full-time faculty), and reputation (peer reviews). Needless to say, U.S. News’s college rankings landed on the world of higher education with a thud.

With their authoritative tone, the rankings also introduced new possibilities. Before they appeared, it was doubtful that NU could ever rub shoulders with Boston College or Harvard. But now, with a codified system out there, nearly everything was reduced to numbers. And those numbers could be beat. “They give you a playing field on which you can play,” Freeland says of the rankings. They give schools “a way to compete.”

From the start, schools have argued that the rankings are subjective. Defenders of the rankings maintain that the system exposes students to more schools and helps the consumer compare products. Regardless, students, graduate schools, and employers have embraced the list, giving it unprecedented power. An unintended result, however, is that schools need to spend more to stay competitive in the categories that U.S. News considers important. Universities may be in the business of education, but it’s a competitive business in which all compete for students and revenue. With an arms race to the top, higher education has soared out of reach for an increasing number of Americans. NU tuition alone in 1989 was $9,500; today it’s $42,534.

“You can love us or hate us, but we’re not going away,” says U.S. News editor Brian Kelly. “University officials realized we’re much more valuable to them than not.” He deflects criticism, saying, “It’s not up to us to solve problems. We’re just putting data out there.” He does, however, admit that the rankings system can be gamed.

 

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  • Equalizer

    Shame on them, going out of their way to improve the quality of their school like that. Boston really could’ve used those extra parking spaces.

    • Al

      Clearly Boston Magazine does not want Boston schools at the top of that list. An article talking about how much investment NU has made to the city simply doesn’t create buzz like lemon water and scandal. (By my count, the overall majority of the info in this story about NU comes from a single source–an ex-president with some serious axes to grind). Single source stories are trash journalism. I learned that at NU J-school, BTW.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Why would ex-president Freeland have axes to grind? Northeastern still pays the guy about $250,000 per year and will continue to until his death. Read the school’s IRS Form 990.

        • chapmac

          NU is a classic example of a nonprofit managed for the profit of its managers.

        • agingcynic

          Wonder if Freedland also gets a state pension from his time on THAT buffet table? Also left unmentioned were NU Law’s highly visible forays into “social justice” arenas. In a town like Boston, it doesn’t take much bravery to come out as a crusading progressive. Plenty of free ink from like-minded journalists trained by the likes of Dan Kennedy of WGBH. Haven’t heard much from their formerly prestigious Criminal Justice program lately, though. The cops’ heads probably exploded.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            I’m sure he will also get a state pension when he retires from that position. Because who can live on just one $250k pension? Seriously, now.
            As I said elsewhere, despite the presence of the vaunted co-op program in the law school, its job placement is almost uniquely terrible among its peer schools, whether one goes by geography, US News rank, or undergrad GPA/LSAT scores to determine peers.
            Prestigious Criminal Justice program seems an oxymoron; however, it still feels like CJ prof Charles Alan Fox writes op-eds in the Globe at least once a week.

      • chapmac

        Some of NU’s former execs are poster boys for videorectalism.

  • boston11

    The “Best Colleges for your Money” list is very flawed – especially when it comes to Northeastern. Their “net price” for Northeastern is not even close to accurate. The net price accounts for financial aid, yet the price they list is actually higher than tuition ($195,929). They seem to be multiplying the price by the number of years it takes to graduate even though Northeastern students typically graduate in 5 years due to co-op but they only pay 4 years tuition. The large number of international students at Northeastern who do not receive financial aid would also skew their numbers.

    • xxxaaaxxx

      Plus most students get paid for their co-op.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Really? At least half of the law school’s co-ops are unpaid.

        • xxxaaaxxx

          Should have taken engineering, they pay well and you have a job lined up before graduation. Some schools are better known then others. Hope you find one soon.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Oh, I went undergrad at a college far more well-regarded than Northeastern, but I was naïve and seduced by Northeastern Law’s co-op program and evaluations instead of grades and all the rest of it. Shame on me.

          • chapmac

            Egineering is a churn-and-burn-operation, with remarkably poor teaching in the required core classes to cull the herd at regular and regulated intervals.

          • Harry Harding

            If only Northeastern could move up in the rankings and make itself more prestigious all you troubles would be over, and there’s the rub.

        • chapmac

          Not to the students, perhaps, but I’d bet a small sum the school collects a fee from the lucky firms who get slave labor from NU. Probably close to the fees temp agencies charge.

  • Whatever

    yes… reaching out to and accepting higher quality students, improving facilities and the quality of professors. God knows an institution of higher learning doesn’t want to do THAT

    • chapmac

      Some actually don’t, if it means churning and burning the freshmen and junior faculty, a la NU.

  • sickbastard

    It sounds like Northeastern did everything right. I can’t really gauge the tone of the article, but it almost seems like the author is against what Northeastern did, which is bizarre. It unquestionably a better school because of this push. Better students, better facilities, and from what I’ve read about the co-op program, probably better jobs after graduation.

    • xxxaaaxxx

      The co-op program does get you a job after graduation.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Really? I haven’t seen any independently audited statistics verifying the % of undergrads who received jobs from co-op, and given how blatantly the law school lied about its co-op placement for years and years, I am not inclined to believe anything the university’s PR machine might tell me about the undergrads.

        • chapmac

          NU is a place where they turn off the heat on friday afternoon because nothing that matters happens after the Deans leave for the weekend- which includes the theater’s rehearsals.

      • chapmac

        Unless the Wentworth kids get there first.

  • Guest

    Wowzers– this has the tone of a seriously upset BU alum. First off, “When he requests water from his secretary, it arrives in a stemmed glass with two lemon slices. This is a man who is clearly used to winning, and takes pleasures in the spoils.” Max… what’re you talking about, man? It’s not Watergate. Ease up.

    And in your entire writing of this article, did you really never think, “hmm, colleges are sort of like businesses.” Because I may have some news for you…

    For example, you knock the building of on-campus housing because it helps Northeastern in the ranks. You quickly skim over the research showing it keeps students enrolled. If it keeps students in schools, and this reflects positively in the ranks, it’s a good thing. I enjoyed IV; I enjoyed West Village. Maybe this is an example of everyone winning, but maybe that would counter your ostentatious title of NU “gaming” the ranks.

    This article is riddled with bias but I’d prefer to just point out some irony. The only article higher than this on this site, right now, is a ranking of local public high schools… high schools. This very outlet which seems to condemn ranking systems for their negative externalities, has its own widely advertised (it’s the cover of your magazine right now) ranking of public high schools. And guess what, it’s 100% based on statistics! Keep up the good reporting, guys.

    • Andy

      There’s a lot of talk about teachers teaching to standardized testing today and its ill effects. And the money involved. See, those standardized tests (and similar stats) are so important because they boost home prices. And where do people find those test scores and other stats? Right here next to the real estate agent’s ads. Huh. You’re part of the problem, Boston Mag, not part of the solution. Clean up your act or stick to fashion spreads and rich people parties.

    • Andy

      What do you expect from a guy with a Twitter feed like this: https://twitter.com/maxkutner THAT’s who Boston Magazine is paying these days? I gotta move to Portland.

  • Jeff Seid

    You seem angry, didn’t get in? :^)

    • disqus_4gJGalC1Bs

      As if it’s hard to get into northeastern…

      • Jeff Seid

        Are you mad, Max? :^^^^^)

        • disqus_4gJGalC1Bs

          so mad, natty king. LMK when east coast “NU” is better than the real NU

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      The author went to Columbia; I rather doubt Northeastern was on his radar screen.

  • Guest2

    Max does seem a bit jilted…ALL big universities pay attention to USN rankings and react accordingly to better position themselves. This is not news or even interesting…I know, how about for a follow up article we play back the internal rankings conversations of folks at BU or BC?….Yawn!!! The value of NU is it’s co-op and employer network. In this market, it’s experience and connections that matter….and how dare you wear a pink shirt with a salmon tie? Outrageous!!!

  • Thomas McCarthy

    Written by a BU or BC alumnus no doubt. Either that or his kid was rejected by Northeastern

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      Columbia alumnus.

    • chapmac

      Can you find a kid with a pulse and body temp of 98.6 F who was rejected by NU?

      • Dave

        More than 30,000 applicants are rejected each year. See the college confidential forums for discussion of the agony these students go through. In this job market, the co-op program is a HUGE draw.

      • Will LaTulippe

        I got rejected. They’re willing to sell their product to non-Americans and drug using/dealing punk kids, but a guy like me who wanted to take Joe Castiglione’s course and co-op in Boston radio gets Heismaned.

        Then I read in this article that they increased their application count not because they wanted more students, but just to move up some survey. Good job, NU. You tricked an 18-year old from Vermont out of the $50 application fee. You must be proud of your great achievement in outfoxing teenagers. Fuck off.

  • MRinaldi

    Classic liberal garbage. Hate those who have achieved success and the way that they have done so. The irrelevant, opinionated tangents such as the shots at Aoun and the assertions about the relationship between merit and need-based scholarships make this piece unbearable, and cannot be referred to as reporting. What this article highlights, contrary to the slanderer’s intent, is to summarize Northeastern’s resurgent success, rather than paint the University as a deceiving cheat.

    • chapmac

      If you want to tomahawk an NU
      president, start with Asa Knowles wh literally wrote the book on how to beat a faculty union by fighting dirty-and then distributed copies to university libraries up and down the eastern US.

  • Michalli

    If they are studying abroad in the fall they are members of the incoming fall class at NU. If they are exempting those SAT’s they are cheating.

    • Thomas McCarthy

      No, they are enrolled at the sponsoring foreign college. The credits appear on their eventual NU transcript as transfer credits.

      • Michalli

        That is REALLY gaming the system.

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          Same thing happens at the law school level all the time. Not at Northeastern so much, because the law school is very small, but there are some very well-known law schools – Georgetown, GW, Columbia – that take in 70 to 100 transfer students or more every year, because 1) they have to pay full boat and 2) their undergrad GPA/LSATs don’t count in US News.

  • Al

    So..next article..how do all of the schools listed in Boston Magazine’s listing cook the books to get higher in their rankings? Because that drives home prices. And that makes real estate agents and developers very very rich. In fact, school systems are now being “rewarded” by local RE agents. I’ll get to work on that story for a publication that’s not looking to sensationalize an issue (pink shirt???) and present facts and real reporting. Thanks for the idea.

  • Harry Harding

    Fantastic job, everyone at Northeastern. Terrible job the editor of Boston magazine for running such a hatchet piece and terrible job the faculty of Columbia for graduating such a poor journalist. On this evidence alone Columbia should drop 5 points on the USN College ranking list.

    • Andy

      Yes, a balanced story would include comments from other schools showing that NU’s actions are dramatically different than the rest. But they didn’t do that. They just interviewed one ex-president and pretty much made the rest up from background and opinion. I’m embarrassed to give this article the pageview. #wantmypageviewback

      • Dave

        If you read between the lines, there are a lot of positives in the article (portrayed mostly as negatives). For example, having the highest percentage of international students in New England is great if you value cross cultural experiences and diversity. See Kevin Fitzgerald’s post above for more examples of positives (negatives).

  • foobar

    Perhaps Richard Freeland can work his magic with the UMass rankings?

    • Thomas McCarthy

      Freeland can do magic, but not miracles. As long as UMass is under the thumb of the MA legislature, it is doomed.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        When I read about higher education, which I do probably more than yourself, I never see things like this written in the national press about UMASS:

        “Certain private schools tend to generate good stories about student debt, because they’re the sort of schools that result in $95,000 worth of undergraduate loans. The big villains here are certain second-tier private colleges, schools like American University and Northeastern University come to mind, because they’re the ones saddling students with huge financial burdens in their efforts to move higher up in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.” http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/blog/student_loan_debt_focus_on_pub.php?page=all

        OR

        “Karen Burger graduated from Northeastern University in 2012, not exactly sure of what postgraduate life would look like. A religious studies major with a minor in East Asian studies, she pictured theology school and working at a faith-based nonprofit.

        Then reality — including $96,000 in student debt accumulated over five years of college — smacked her career plans. She moved back to her mother’s home near Philadelphia, took a teller’s job at TD Bank, and when the interest on her monthly payments increased, shifted her focus from the divine to the military, reaching out to an Army recruiter in the hope of finding some relief from her debt…. Burger works as a customer service representative at the TD Bank near her childhood home near Philadelphia, making $11 an hour [my emphasis]. Her loan payments eat up more than half her take-home pay, and she wonders when she’ll be able to move out of her mother’s home.”

        and

        “Mackenzie Hunter graduated from Northeastern in May with a dual degree in international affairs and anthropology and $70,000 in debt. After working and studying in more than a half-dozen countries, the 23-year-old Pittsfield native had hoped to join the Peace Corps. But, she said, “Sallie Mae won’t defer my loans.””

        In http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/08/24/dreams-deferred-denied-crushing-student-debt/2KKknguTiNup62Yp28ENkK/story.html

        OR

        “Meet one of the outliers: 23 years old, more than $200,000 in student loans, begging for help. [I've redacted her name] is 23. She graduated from high school in 2005, and went to Northeastern University—”the first person in my family (including extended family!) to attend college,” she says. http://gawker.com/5696300/what-200000-in-student-debt-looks-like

        Believe it or not, there is more need for good and inexpensive public education than there is for just another breathtakingly expensive NYU-wannabe rankings-monger. Northeastern University, founded out of the Huntington Street YMCA to educate the lower-income masses Harvard wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, now costs within a few hundred dollars of Harvard, but with far less financial aid, and Pell Grant participation in the low teens. Well done.

        • Thomas McCarthy

          Well unemp, unlike you, I have better things to do than search the internet to find stories to fuel my hatred for a school that you chose to attend. I have to get up tomorrow and go to a well paid job with great benefits that I likely would not have without my Northeastern education.
          Get some therapy before it is too late.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Ad hominems, survivorship bias, lack of self-reflection, and inability to produce any substantive evidence to back your self-aggrandizing, flippant assertions . Yes, it certainly seems like Northeastern has educated you well. Your critical analytical skills are off the charts. I’ll be polite and refrain from saying which end of the chart, though.

          • self_employed_northeastern

            Dude, get a life. It’s people like you who think getting a degree gives you entitlement to a good salary. There are over 1,000,000 practicing lawyers in the US. Thats 1/300 people. The only way to make all of them happy is if everyone starts suing each other. Not a smart career path these days unless you are creme of the crop.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            “Dude, get a life.”
            You appear to have created this avatar at three in the morning on a weekday to write that, so right back at you.
            P.S. The American workforce is only about 160 million people, as a bunch of Americans are, you know, children and the elderly.

        • http://www.fibrowitch.net/ Jan Dumas

          Thanks for sharing those 3 stories,it amazes me that no one sits down with these students and tells them that now jobs are available for people who follow their education path.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Moral hazard: Northeastern (and other colleges, obviously) don’t care if their students can repay their loans, the time-value of money makes student loans more valuable than the possibility of future alumni donations (which constitute a far smaller portion of virtually every college’s revenues anyhow), and most importantly, don’t suffer any retribution or harm if even a sizable majority of their students eventually default. The federal government, on paper anyways, makes extraordinary profits on its student lending program, thanks to the ability to borrow money at ~1% and lend it to students at 6% to 9% (depending on the type of loan), and private lenders make their nut by packaging all of their loans together and selling them as asset-backed securities on Wall Street to pension funds and investment banks. Which leaves no one left to inform students or parents about the pitfalls of excessive student loan debt, giving 17 and 18 year olds their first lesson in caveat emptor.

        • Mark Sandiego

          At some point individual responsibility enters into the equation, doesn’t it? Northeastern isn’t responsible for the utterly failed logic that leads to spending $100k to get a Religious Studies degree. Students are not blameless victims.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            I would say students and families bear all responsibility. Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, after all (and some courts have ruled that any debts used to pay for college are nondischargeable), while colleges suffer no ill effects even if a large majority of their graduates cannot pay back their student loans. They haven’t co-signed or guaranteed those student loans, even though they enjoy all of the benefit from them. Do they bear any responsibility for promulgating misleading or even fraudulent data regarding job placement, co-op success, rankings manipulation, and so forth? Law schools – by which I mean virtually all of them, not just Northeastern – played so fast and loose with their salary information that the a bipartisan Senate committee threatened to investigate back in 2011. And of course, while they were making up salary figures, they were also increasing tuition faster than any other sector of higher education, including the for-profits. Do they not bear any responsibility? After all, the law schools were the only source for this information. Oh yeah – did I mention that the 200 accredited law schools actually jointly own a student loan company as a membership corporation? (AccessGroup). That’s a little factoid they like to keep under wraps.

            For that matter, can’t we construe Northeastern’s singular focus on climbing US News as justification for the obscene climb in tuition since the late 1990’s? ‘Hey kids, don’t worry about the fact that we cost virtually the same as Harvard and offer far less financial aid; have you seen how high we’ve climbed in the rankings? We’re obviously worth it.’ I might add that in this too, Northeastern is not alone. NYU, GW, BU, American, and countless other former regional universities have taken the gamble that if they charge as much (or more, in some cases) than a Yale or Williams or Stanford, their applications and desirability will soar. It’s the Veblen Good Theory of higher education.

            How about corporations, who recruited and hired liberal arts graduates for many decades, but now refuse to train new employees, despite sitting on record amounts of assets and profits? Where’s their admonishment for externalizing training costs on higher education and shifting the costs of training from themselves to the employees? I thought we were against free lunches in this country.

            Again, I don’t see anyone but the students bearing responsibility in this current regime of higher education.

    • chapmac

      Not having Whitey Bulger’s brother in charge should count for something- like the red cross blood bank firing Vlad Dracula as manager.

  • Kevin Fitzgerald

    I want to be sure I have it correct.
    A university President wanted to improve the university.
    The applicants improved, selectivity improved, the campus was improved, the university increased faculty, …..
    The improved university gained national recognition so it clearly gamed the system of ranking.
    Wow, quality and hard work pays off. Gaming has a new definition.

    • chapmac

      What the said president wanted to improve was profitability.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    A few notes, as a recent graduate of the law school at Northeastern:

    – The undergrad is not at “Ivy level” by any means, regardless of what metric the chair of NU’s board cares to use. High school GPAs, SAT/ACT, graduation rates, grad school placement, starting salaries, or even the very easily manipulated admissions rate. This is just unsubstantiated bluster.

    – Re: admissions. I have heard rumors for quite some time now that Northeastern actually sends application fee waivers and encouraging letters to thousands of academically unqualified students that they have no intention of admitting, so as to artificially lower that acceptance rate. I also hear they are far from the only school in this regard (the technique was allegedly dreamed up by NYU, which shares a similar yearning for artificial prestige as Northeastern).

    – Re: US News. Contrary to the article, the rankings do reward schools with legacy and tradition via the heavily weighted peer rating metric (the prestige-o-meter, as I like to call it), the admissions rate which favors the most prestigious colleges, the expenditure per student, which favors the wealthiest colleges, and so on. I bet that if one were to make a regression analysis of US News ranking versus schools’ endowments, you would have a correlation coefficient of at least 0.6 to 0.7. Also, the rankings are obviously put forward with great authoritative assertion, but are so run-through with self-reported and unaudited information that US News often fails to acknowledge or correct that I have seen at least two law review articles musing on potential civil and criminal laws they might be breaking. To quote from one article’s abstract, “U.S. News itself may have committed mail and wire fraud. It has republished, and sold for profit, data submitted by law schools without verifying the data’s accuracy, despite being aware that at least some schools were submitting false and misleading data. U.S. News refused to correct incorrect data and rankings errors and continued to sell that information even after individual schools confessed that they had submitted false information. In addition, U.S. News marketed its surveys and rankings as valid although they were riddled with fundamental methodological errors.” The article can be found here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1990746

    – Re: Aoun. He may claim that “He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings,” but on the other hand, it was one of the primary justifications for his $2 million bonus (on top of $1.21 million in other compensation) in the school’s 2012 IRS Form 990, which is a tax form all non-profits must complete each year. Also, per the Boston Globe a few years back, the school claims, for tax reasons, that the rental value of the $9 million mansion Aoun uses is a highly improbable $8k/month; a real estate agent the Globe quotes in the article says it would be at least $20k/month.

    – Oh, and lest we think that everything turns out sunny side up for the graduates, let’s not forget this story that made national news a few years ago: “She went to Northeastern University to get a degree in sociology. And she graduated in $200,000 of student loan debt.” http://finance.yahoo.com/news/1-student-debt-crisis-owing-163540505.html I would note that almost all of her debt is private, which means that Northeastern’s financial aid office was almost certainly negligent in informing her and her family of superior federal student loan options (Staffords, Perkins, Pell Grants, ParentPLUS,etc).

    – P.S. The law school’s placement into full-time, long-term, bar license-required jobs has been on the wrong side of 50% for at least three years now; a pretty raw deal for a school that costs more than $70,000/year and where the median *scholarship* (read: discount) is a mere $8k or so; more than a decade ago, the law school cost about $45k/year and the median discount was $8k.

  • Donna Hines

    I have a daughter who graduated from Northeastern and a son attending law school at Northeastern. My daughter gained invaluable work experience through the coop program which has propelled her into a career that she is both passionate about and excels at. My son is taking advantage of the coop program as well. As a parent, I am extremely satisfied with the education my children have received from Northeastern and feel the salaries they will earn over their lifetime more than compensate for the cost of their education. I would like to meet the person who wrote the article and wonder if this person is a parent who has journeyed through the “college experience” with a child. The college selection is not just about numbers and rankings. The college experience is about your child, their well-being, their education about life and preparation for entering the work place equipped with the knowledge and passion to achieve what they want to achieve…Northeastern provided this experience and I, as a parent, am very grateful…

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      Best of luck to your daughter. As a fellow graduate of the law school (who attended a liberal arts college far up the rankings ladder from Northeastern undergrad), I can unfortunately communicate that the school’s placement rates have been absolutely atrocious for several years now. Information before 2011 is unreliable, as the ABA let all sort of misleading-to-fraudulent data be promulgated – to the extent that Senators Grassley (R) and Boxer (D) implicitly threatened a Senate investigation into the ABA’s ability to remain the accrediting body of American law schools – which resulted in enhanced required job disclosures pretty quickly. Funny how that happens.

      Anyways, in the three years of reliable data that we have, Northeastern placed… 100 of 218 Co2013 graduates in full-time, long-term, bar license-required jobs within nine months of graduation at any salary level. 93 of 215 for the Class of 2012, and 90 of 182 in 2011. In other words, it can’t even get half of its graduates into the legal profession. In that regard, its performance is much more similar to that of fourth-tier Suffolk or New England Law Boston than it is to BC or BU.
      And of course, then there is the cost. Northeastern stickers well north of $200,000, including living expenses, and considerably more than that once one includes undergraduate debt, the 4.9% origination fee on those law school loans, the 6% to 8% interest that accrues on those loans while in law school, and bar exam expenses. So realistically, the only jobs that can service that debt level (a standard repayment is going to be somewhere north of $2000/month) without utilizing the soft-default provisions of Income-Based Repayment or Pay As You Go are BigLaw jobs. In 2011, only 4 members of the 182 member graduating class got those jobs. In 2012, only 13 of 215 graduates did. Last year, only 16 of 218 did. In other words, given that roughly 90% of every class takes out student loans, almost no one comes out of Northeastern Law School with the ability to make full and timely student loan payments without enrolling in income-based repayment plans what are essentially greatly protracted Chapter 13 bankruptcy plans without the actual fresh start afforded by a real bankruptcy (quite the contrary, two of those three income-based repayment plans feature a tax bomb at the end). It is a catastrophic disaster.

      As for those repayment plans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is looking like it isn’t going to survive the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this fall; it will be either greatly curtailed (i.e. max forgiveness of $57,500) or repealed altogether. PAYE was an executive action undertaken by Obama, so it’s probably going to be eliminated whenever we next have a Republican president. And just like that, the two best plans are gone, leaving IBR – 15% of your aftertax income for 25 years, during which interest accumulates and enlarges your underlying balance. At the end of 25 years, the swollen balance is forgiven… and considered realized income by the IRS.

      In the legal profession, law school selection is ONLY about numbers and rankings. Take a look at this graphical visualization of job placement vs. US News Law School Ranking that came out this week: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2014/08/visualizing-employment-.html
      There is very nearly a linear relationship between ranking and probability of finding work in the profession.

      http://taxprof.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c4eab53ef01a73e0a3be4970d-640wi

      • Thomas McCarthy

        Unemployed: For at least 5 years now, in various publications, every time there is an article about Northeastern you denounce the school. Next time you are pondering why you legal career failed to launch, instead of looking at your Northeastern Law diploma, you should look in a mirror.

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          My name is Legion for we are many, perhaps both literally and figuratively. Your ad hominem unfortunately does not remedy the reality that about 2500 people pass the bar exam in Massachusetts every year for about 700 jobs, according to the MA Bar Association, and Northeastern Law hasn’t seen the correct side of 50% placement in who knows how long; certainly before the ABA came out with its enhanced job disclosure requirements. Not to worry, though – both of their senior career services personnel just retired, so it will probably get worse.

          • Thomas McCarthy

            Ad hominem or not, still check the mirror.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            You really can’t address any of my substantive points, can you? I do look in the mirror every day, and feel shame for being so gullible as to believing the hype that the law school hawked when I was applying. The law profession is a pedigree game, no different than investment banking or working at MBB, and to the profession, especially in these bleak hiring climate, Northeastern Law simply does not cut it.

            Heck, look at the school’s Wikipedia page:

            “According to Northeastern University School of Law’s official 2013 ABA-required disclosures, 45.4% of the Class of 2013 obtained full-time, long-term, bar passage-required employment nine months after graduation, excluding solo practitioners.[8] NUSL ranked 152nd out of the 201 ABA-approved law schools in terms of the percentage of 2013 graduates with non-school-funded, full-time, long-term, bar passage required jobs nine months after graduation.[12]… 14.7% were unemployed nine months graduation.[8]”

            14.7% unemployment is actually higher than the nationwide unemployment rate for four-year college graduates in 2013. But yeah, it’s just me. And the hundreds of other Northeastern Law grads who can’t find meaningful work…

          • Equalizer

            Maybe you’re just a bad lawyer

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Yep, just me and the nearly 60% of each of Northeastern Law’s last several graduating classes who couldn’t break into the profession.

          • Anonymous_Commenter

            Well, by your numbers, only 28% of those passing the bar will get the type of job they are looking for. If so, it seems Northeastern is not doing so bad at all if over 45% of their graduates are placed quickly in “full-time, long-term, bar passage-required” jobs. I was under the impression that law students across the country generally initially go into part-time or internship-based employment and can often take a while to really break into the profession.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            BU and BC are both around 66%, Harvard of course is 90% and the rest go into venture capital or something. Northeastern’s placement stats are much closer to Suffolk and New England Law Boston’s, both of which hover in the 35-40% range, and more to the point, are far lower than any of its peer schools in the US News Law School rankings. In US News, the law school is 93rd, which is on the low side historically – I have seen it ranked as high as the mid 60’s, and it’s usually somewhere in the 70’s. In job placement, though, it’s currently 151st. That’s a very large discrepancy.

            If you don’t get a full-time, long-term, bar passage-required (the ABA’s nomenclature, not mine) within a year of graduation, chances are you are never going to get one, because now you are year-old bread in comparison with the new enormous crop of law school graduates.

          • Anonymous_Commenter

            Well to me that says far more about the state of the profession than the school. Many other programs and degrees at Northeastern offer very high placement rates. It is not, though, an Ivy League or equivalent school. That matters more in some disciplines than others, and reputation will certainly lag other metrics in improvement.

            In other news, US private schools are very expensive, who knew. I went to a state school, and would do it again; but Northeastern’s Co-op program should be the envy of nearly every school out there.

            This article generally is just playing to a tabloid-style script. Things like reducing class size and student/faculty ratios is made to sound like a bad thing because US News (and most people generally) considers that to be a good thing. Similarly, doing things to increase student retention and help more students finish their degrees is suddenly completely self-serving and of no benefit to students. Administrators are nearly always looking to metrics to gauge their success and demonstrate the impact they have had during their time. It is only reasonable that they look to the most impact-full metric relevant to them and work to move up the ranks. This should be their goal, that is why they are administrators and not the ones actually educating the students. Your education is in reality becoming inherently more reputable by the year, unfortunately unemployment can be a viscous cycle to break regardless of other conditions.

    • JuTMSY4

      Unemployed_Northeastern is a (rightfully) dissatisfied law school grad. Of course, he’s comparing Northeastern UG to law school. The Undergrad university is far superior to it’s law school and comparing the two is silly. Results are also poor for any other private T2. Results are also poor for public T2s, but at least it didn’t costs twice as much.

      I’m also a NU grad and a law graduate (employed).

  • http://www.lingoist.com/ Chris Thomas

    If focusing on (or, to use a loaded word, ‘gaming’) improving ones underlying metrics is a bad thing, does that tell us more about those ‘gaming’, or the metrics themselves? If the metrics are useful and correlate well with a valuable education, then ‘gaming’ the metrics increases the value of the education for its students.

    It’s similar to something like, say, test prep. If a student is studying for a quality examinations such as IELTS, CFA, or the AP tests, who cares if one is ‘teaching to the test’ if the result is an actual retention of knowledge?

    All of that being said, the following was my experience as a Northeastern business student from 2004-2009. I’ll say in advance that things may have changed, or that my experience may have not been representative.

    1. The co-op program is simply fantastic. Honestly, it boggles my mind that students go through four years of university with only doing the odd summer internship. Even with its shortcomings, if I were to do my college selection over again, I’d still choose NEU (or perhaps another co-op school like Drexel).

    2. The international programs are great. I did BSIB – I was part of the first batch of students to go to China, which completely changed my mindset. I live and work in Shenzhen to this day.

    3. The academics were a bit weak. I’ve heard that this may be a common experience in many American business schools, but studying abroad in Hong Kong (HKUST) really made me question the value of the business education that I was receiving. The professors at Northeastern were great, the problem was that by and large the classes were not meant to be challenging in the least, right up to your senior year. I remember vividly taking a senior year risk management class – flustered that were were spending another half a semester covering the application of CAPM, I asked the professor, “couldn’t we spend some time on VaR or Black-Scholes, or something a bit more advanced?” To which he retorted, “if I did that, too many students would fail.”

    I would be more than willing to be open to the possibility that in order to improve graduation rates, there may have been an unspoken pressure to ‘dumb down’ curriculum for students. Of course, my comparison is the HKUST business school, which is top 5 in Asia and has one of the best programs for Finance in the world, so perhaps that’s not completely fair.

    The problem with NEU is simply cost. Yet of course, very few private universities in America don’t have this issue. If you’re going to a private university in the US, NEU’s a great option. But if you’re looking ROI of a degree, better to choose a state school or (even better) somewhere abroad.

  • smallchange

    I hope no one believes that Northeastern is the only university gaming the system.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net/ Jan Dumas

    I miss the old Northeastern, the one where you could go part time. where the teachers were out working in the field, teaching at night to help students move ahead. Saddened that Northeastern decided they could just kick Boston aside and pretend that it was never a commuter school!

  • S Weeth

    Who is the author? What is his background?He sees what he wants to see, I guess.
    My daughter just got into the school. She got almost perfect SAT scores and all 5s on AP tests. She thought she would be the top in her class. But no. There are students who were accepted by Tufts, Dartmouth, UC Berkely, but would rather come here…. Her friends from a very competitive high school have put Northeastern as “safe school” in application, but did not get in…. Surprise, surprise…

  • Gabriella Frazier

    Curious why this writer and Boston magazine in turn are so threatened by Northeastern in particular. The way the article ends pretty much highlights the one sided attack and focus, talk about spinning the numbers. Shame on you Boston Magazine, you showed your true prejudice elitist colors.

  • Gabriella Frazier

    This Boston Globe article says it all, see link below.
    Boston Magazine retracts school rankings
    Education specialists say list’s flaws extend far beyond erroneous data
    By Walter V. Robinson | GLOBE STAFF SEPTEMBER 14.

    If you ranked yourself “Boston Magazine” by the same standards you use to write articles, you might also land “at the bottom of the third quartile”.

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/09/13/boston-magazine-retracts-school-rankings/40YsOIEhZ8CHiGb7o5lcWM/story.html