Increasing applications, high retention and graduation rates maintain ‘Nova’s No. 1 ranking

Laura Welch

Villanova University has been ranked the No. 1 Master’s University in the North by U.S. News and World Report for over 10 consecutive years. Villanova took the top spot in its category in 1994 and has yet to relinquish the title. Not only has the University dominated its category, but it also continues to improve year after year.

Villanova is what is referred to by U.S. News and World Report as a “Master’s University.” This does not mean that the rankings reflect only the master’s program. Rather, the rankings describe the University as an institution that offers a full range of undergraduate and master’s level programs. Prior to 2001, these universities were described as “regional universities,” but were then renamed “Master’s Universities” to more aptly describe the mission of the schools to provide both undergraduate and graduate programs.

U.S. News and World Report uses a system that ranks schools in several areas. The top school in each category is given a value of 100 and the other schools receive a score in proportion.

One of the most heavily weighted categories is peer assessment, which is worth 25 percent of the final score. Peer assessment, which was previously named academic reputation, refers to the reputation of a school from the view of those from other schools. The system uses a scale from one to five, with five being the highest.

The most current rankings from U.S. News and World Report give Villanova a 4.3, the highest in the north. Not only has the University held the top spot for several years, but it is also improving, with a 4 percent increase over the past three years.

Equally important as peer assessment is graduation and retention rank. This category is also worth 25 percent of the total score. Villanova University ranks No. 1 in this category with a 94 percent average freshman retention rate and an 85 percent graduation rate. With a strong hold on the lead of both these categories, Villanova will not be surrendering its top spot in the future. Dr. John Johannes, vice president of academic affairs, assures that Villanova University will continue to stay No. 1 while constantly improving.

Even as the University is advancing categorically, it continues to break away with the overall lead. When the University took the No. 1 spot in 1994, Fairfield University was a close second with an overall score of 99.3. Over the years, Villanova has consistently increased the margin between the No. 1-and No. 2-ranked schools. Villanova currently has a comfortable lead on the No. 2-ranked school, Loyola College in Maryland, which has an overall score of 86.

Proportional to the University’s growing prestige and reputation is its selectivity. It is becoming more and more difficult to be accepted, and this is a reflection of its growing quality of education. Johannes points out that there has been an increase of 2,000 incoming applications to Villanova in the past year alone. He maintains that the primary factor that contributes to Villanova’s increasing selectivity is that while it has always been a great school in many aspects it continually becomes a better school.

Johannes adds that the Augustinian values of tradition and community that are apparent upon first stepping onto Villanova’s campus are also important factors that lead to the University’s desirability.

The increasing student selectivity of the University has been documented in the rankings by U.S. News and World Report over the past decade. As the University approached the top in the region in the first half of the 1990s, it was ranked the 18th most selective school in the region. With a 14-spot jump in just three years, Villanova was the fourth most selective by 1995.

The selectivity ranking remained steady for several years, and according to the statistics from surveys conducted in 2005, Villanova is now the second most selective Master’s University in the North.

Dean of Enrollment Management Stephen Merritt points out that part of the reason Villanova has become increasingly selective is that as more and more people are hearing about Villanova, they are deciding to take the time to research the school.

“When there are spotlights on Villanova, such as a successful basketball season and the U.S. News Rankings, people think about looking at Villanova, and when they do, they see good things,” Merritt says.

Merritt describes the findings of accepted student surveys that reveal students rank Villanova highest in academic quality, reputation with employers and personal attention toward students. Part of the University’s reputation concerning academics is thanks to word of mouth.

“When you actually come into an environment you have heard so many good things about, and you then realize it is all true, that is the best advertisement available,” Merritt says.

Considering one out of every four students in the current freshman class is related to someone that previously attended Villanova, alumni and current students are doing their part to inform others of their satisfaction with an education from the University.

As the University becomes better known due to a mounting lead as the No. 1 Master’s University in the North, the question remains as to whether or not the University will ever enter the rankings on the national level. According to Johannes, it is most likely that the University will eventually be ranked nationally, but it will not happen for several years.

Certain events would have to take place in order for the University to be ranked on the national level as a doctoral university. U.S. News and World Report uses the old Carnegie Classification system for ranking, although the Carnegie Foundation’s method of rankings has recently been revamped.

In the Carnegie Classification method, a university needs at least three PhD programs and 10 or more people to graduate from each of these programs for three consecutive years in order to be considered a doctorate university.

Johannes explains that Villanova currently offers three doctorate programs in nursing, engineering and philosophy. The doctoral program in philosophy was started in 1991 and has between one and four people graduate with a PhD each year. The nursing and engineering programs were started more recently and will not have people graduate until the Spring 2008 semester.

The University could not become a part of the national doctorate bracket until 2011, assuming over 10 people graduate from each of the three fields.

Some might argue that if the University ever did enter the national bracket, it would dilute the value of the undergraduate and graduate programs. Johannes is adamant that no PhD program will ever be allowed to have a negative affect on any of the other programs at the University.

“In fact, it is quite the opposite,” Johannes says. “We encourage the two to work together.”

It is probable that Villanova will not enter the doctoral extensive rankings for at least another 10 years. Until then, the University is persisting in its effort to maintain the No. 1 spot in the region.

Over the past decade, Villanova has continuously increased its rate of student satisfaction and overall academic reputation.

The University keeps improving, and its rankings reflect that. The future of the University shows promise.

“When you get to the top, you need to continue to improve incrementally, and Villanova does that,” Merritt says.