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story.lead_photo.caption Kassandra Salazar (left), a sophomore at the University of Arkansas from Rogers, speaks Tuesday, April 5, 2016, to a group of 11th-grade students from Heritage High School in Rogers as they walk past Old Main while on a tour of the university campus in Fayetteville. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville saw its ranking slide five slots to 77th among public universities in U.S. News & World Report's national rankings published today.

The annual rankings aim to measure academic quality by comparing data among schools, such as graduation rates, student-faculty ratios and spending on instruction.

UA tied with five others in the rankings category for public universities considered national.

A university spokesman said the dip reflected a change in criteria for the rankings.

"U.S. News lowered the weighting of metrics like alumni giving and incoming student academic achievement, factors where the university ranks very well, creating a negative effect on where the university is ranked," Mark Rushing, UA's assistant vice chancellor for university relations, said in an email.

The university's six-year graduation rate of 66.2% for a cohort of 4,300 students fell just below the U.S. News predicted rate of 67%, according to UA data and the rankings.

Three other Arkansas universities -- Arkansas State University, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and University of Central Arkansas -- were not assigned a specific ranking but in a tier of public national schools ranked from 154th to 209th.

U.S. News describes national universities as having a wide range of majors, plus master's and doctoral programs.

Princeton University topped the latest rankings, while UCLA ranked first among public universities. A total of 209 public and 176 private universities are in the U.S. News national rankings category, plus four for-profit universities.

UA ranked 160th among public and private national universities, highest in the state. UA tied with nine other schools for the ranking. The second-highest ranked national university in Arkansas was Harding University, a private Christian university in Searcy, which ranked 249th in a tie with eight other schools.

Five years ago, UA-Fayetteville ranked 62nd among public national universities in the U.S. News listing.

But the rankings in recent years have placed weight on the grad rates of students receiving Pell grants, a type of federal aid given out to the neediest students. In 2018, UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said this led to a 15-slot slide in rankings for UA to 78th among public national universities.

A December report by UA states that in 2013, 623 students enrolled and received both a Pell grant and what's known as a Stafford loan. Out of that group, 45.1% earned a degree within six years, more than 20 percentage points below the 66.2% six-year graduation rate for the full 2013 cohort of 4,300 students.

Separately, UA tallied the six-year graduation rate for students receiving a Pell grant without a federal Stafford loan. These 305 students had a six-year graduation rate of 56.7%.

Rushing said the U.S. News ranking is based not only on the graduation rates of students receiving Pell grants, but also the comparison between that group and students not receiving such aid.

"There are many schools on the list that graduate their Pell students at a lower rate than the U of A does, but we realize there is a sizable gap between the graduation rates of our Pell students versus our non-Pell students," Rushing said.

He said "sufficient financial resources are a key component of college success," and that UA has increased scholarships and next year expects to open a "student success center" on campus.

U.S. News also published what it calls a social mobility ranking, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock topped Arkansas colleges with a ranking of 191st among public and private national universities. UALR tied with 11 other schools for the ranking.

Among regional universities in the South ranked for social mobility, Henderson State University in Arkadelphia ranked in a tie for 47th. For regional colleges in the South ranked for social mobility, Crowley's Ridge College in Paragould tied for eighth.

Public national university overall rankings for schools in nearby states showed Texas A&M University ranked in a tie for 26th and the University of Tennessee ranked in a tie for 52nd.

The University of Missouri and the University of Kansas tied for 60th, and the University of Oklahoma ranked in a tie for 62nd. Louisiana State University ranked in a tie for 71st and the University of Mississippi, like UA, ranked 77th.

Criteria for the rankings, first published in 1983, change frequently.

This year, 40% of the rankings are based on student outcomes; 20% each on faculty resources and "expert opinion" given by college administrators; 10% on financial resources; 7% on "student excellence," which factors in ACT scores of incoming students; and 3% on alumni giving.

Rushing said UA expects retention and graduation rates "to be at historic highs when those are released this fall," and that the university's "peer academic reputation remains solid."

"In addition, it looks like our freshman retention rate will set an all-time high of 85%. So we couldn't be more excited about where the university is headed in the future," Rushing said.

In other categories, Hendrix College ranked in a tie for 93rd out of 221 ranked national liberal arts colleges.

Ouachita Baptist University ranked second among regional colleges in the south, with the University of the Ozarks tied for fifth in the same category.

John Brown University ranked 12th among regional universities in the South. Arkansas Tech University tied for 80th in the same category.

U.S. News this year also published a ranking of undergraduate computer science programs. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has pushed to increase the number of high school students taking computer science courses.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville ranked in a tie for 138th in the U.S. News ranking, tops among all Arkansas schools. Next highest was the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, tied for 191st.

Rushing, the UA-Fayetteville spokesman, said "we appreciate the recognition of this fast-growing discipline as the U of A is ranked among the top 140 out of 481 programs at both public and private universities."

At UA-Fayetteville, computer science is "a growth area" with a new interdisciplinary undergraduate program in data science starting this fall, Rushing said.

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