Despite Naysayers, UNC-Chapel Hill Climbs the Rankings

Much-needed reforms have helped, not hurt, the university’s standing.

Yesterday, U.S. News released its 2024 Best Colleges Rankings. UNC-Chapel Hill moved up to number four among public universities and number 22 among all universities in the U.S. (up from five and 25, respectively). Carolina also ranked 14th among best-value schools.

The rankings use a new methodology that places greater emphasis on student outcomes and social mobility. According to U.S. News, “More than 50% of an institution’s rank now comprises varying outcome measures related to success in enrolling and graduating students from all backgrounds with manageable debt and post-graduate success.” U.S. News also removed five variables, all of which are input measures: “class size, faculty with terminal degrees, alumni giving, high-school class standing, and the proportion of graduates who borrow federal loans.”

The new methodology is much more focused on outcomes than inputs and reputation.These changes make U.S. News’s rankings (which the Martin Center has criticized heavily) a significantly more meaningful measure of quality than in the past. The new methodology is much more focused on outcomes than inputs and reputation.

In a statement, UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said, “Carolina’s ranking as one of the top four public universities in the country demonstrates our commitment to excellence, affordability, innovation, and service. […] Being passionately public, we are also proud to be recognized for our dedication to making Carolina’s world-class education accessible and affordable to people across our state and around the world.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s move up the rankings comes after substantial criticism from local media, faculty naysayers, and even a former chancellor. In 2022, the Raleigh News & Observer published a series of articles alleging that the North Carolina legislature has “done enough to actually damage the University of North Carolina System’s traditionally stellar quality during a decade of Republican control.” (The Martin Center debunked that claim here.)

Former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp has criticized his former employer on Twitter and in the news, calling reforms in North Carolina and elsewhere a “right-wing attack on higher ed.” Last month, Thorp told attendees at the East Chapel Hill Rotary meeting that UNC was in a “challenging place politically” and that “in Florida, Texas, North Carolina … it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

UNC-Chapel Hill provost Chris Clemens responded to Thorp’s comments in light of the new U.S. News rankings, telling the Martin Center, “No, it’s going to get better before it gets awesome.”

Other North Carolina schools are also highly rated. Among national universities, Duke University is number seven, and NC State ranks at number 60. (NC State is number 28 among public schools.) Winston-Salem State University and UNC Greensboro were both “Top Performers on Social Mobility,” ranking numbers 21 and 39, respectively.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest saw the largest increase in ranking among all universities, moving up 106 points, from number 402 to number 296.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.