The Northeastern Miracle

I’m teaching a course in strategic enrollment management (SEM) this semester. For those who aren’t inundated in higher ed terminology, SEM is the process by which colleges and universities try to meet institutional goals through recruiting, enrolling, retaining, and graduating students. For many institutions, adding to their prestige is a top SEM goal. U.S. News college rankings rely heavily on admit rates – the lower the rate, the lower the ranking. This incentivizes schools to become increasingly selective. While schools deny more people year after year, however, they rarely jump up or down in the rankings all that much  because most schools are increasing their selectivity at similar rates. There is one notable exception to that rule: Northeastern University.

Take  look at the graph below:



The graph shows the US News rankings over a decade. The graph looks a little weird until you remember that lower rankings are more prestigious – that’s why Harvard and MIT are at the top, but near zero. From 2008-2015 Harvard never dropped below 2nd Place. MIT was never lower than 7th. Boston College and Tufts University hung around the middle 30s and upper 20s respectively. None of those schools rose or dropped more than 3 spots in any given year – this is the norm.

Now, take a look at Boston University, represented by the solid red line. BU has had a meteoric rise over the past few years and was even invited to join the super-elite club of universities known as the AAU. BU jumped from 57th in 2008 to 39th in 2017. This kind of a rise is very, very rare. But as amazing as BU’s 18-spot jump was, Northeastern has blown them away in terms of jumping up in the rankings.

Over the past 10 years, Northeastern (represented by the dotted red line) has gone from 96th to tying Boston University for the 39th spot in 2017. From barely in the top 100 to top 40 in 10 years – truly amazing. Very rarely does a university gain that much prestige that fast. Boston Magazine has a great article on how Northeastern gamed the rankings  to go from regional commuter school to a place Vice-Presidents send their children. Other big-risers across the country include Florida State (up 20 spots since 2008), Clark University (17 spots), and American University (14 spots)… but none have accomplished anything like the 57-point swing that Northeastern achieved.

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