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Article related photo.Rankings and ratings are now everywhere in American life, and nowhere more ubiquitous than in college football—the Associated Press, ESPN/Coaches’ Poll, and the omnipotent BCS ranking that will determine the national championship. But it’s enlightening every now and then to pull back the curtain and look at how Penn State stacks up in national academic rankings. As the cliché would put it, “It’s all good.”

You want Top 10? The best measuring stick is the annual assessment by the National Science Foundation that assesses “Total Research-and-Development Expenditures for Science and Engineering.” For the 2009 fiscal year, just release this week, Penn State finished 9th in the nation among all private and public universities. Penn State’s total research expenditures in FY 2009 amounted to $753 million.

Total Research-and-Development Expenditures for Science and Engineering, FY 2009

  1. Johns Hopkins, $1.856 billion
  2. Michigan, $1.007 billion
  3. Wisconsin, $952 million
  4. UC/San Francisco, $948 million
  5. UCLA, $890 million
  6. UC/San Diego, $879 million
  7. Duke, $805 million
  8. Washington, $778 million
  9. PENN STATE, $753 million
  10. Minnesota, $741 million

Alumni of a certain age may recall Penn State’s vision from the 1980s, as set forth by then-President Bryce Jordan: to emerge as one of the 10 best public research universities in the nation. The preceding NSF ranking puts Penn State in the Top 10, period—regardless of status as a public or private.

Article related photo. Now, if you look at the most recent NSF’s ranking for FY 2008 federal research-and development expenditures for science and engineering—federal R&D being a subset of total R&D—you will find Penn State ranked 15th with $405 million, behind No. 14 Colorado with $437 million and No. 13 Duke with $451 million. If you factor out the private research universities, Penn State would rank 9th. Again, this ranking of federal R&D attests to Penn State’s stature as a Top 10 public research university.

These two NSF rankings are especially valid because they attest to a University’s success in attracting research grants and contracts—typically in competition with other universities. And that, at root, is a testament to the quality of an institution’s faculty and the resources it deploys in support of that faculty.

One of the chief resources of any university is its library, as Coach Joe Paterno likes to remind us. According to the Association of Research Libraries, looking at the 2008-09 academic year, Penn State came in 8th nationally in the “library investment index at university research libraries.” That year, Penn State invested $49 million in its libraries, just slightly behind No. 7 UCLA with $50 million.

And so the curious thing for me every year is the most visible academic ranking anywhere—that put forth by U.S. News and World Report in its annual “Best Colleges” issue. Year in and year out, Penn State winds up in the Top 50 privates and publics, but toward the tail end of the list. This year, Penn State was tied for 47th along with the University of Illinois.

Article related photo.Much has been written about the U.S. News rankings since they were introduced in the early 1980s. A constant line of criticism is that they are heavily biased in favor of private universities. This year, 2010, only 15 public universities were ranked in the U.S. News Top 50, Penn State among them. The highest-ranking public was the University of California at Berkeley, which came in at No. 22. Michigan was ranked No. 29. The only other Big Ten institution in the Top 50 was Wisconsin at No. 45, just ahead of Penn State and Illinois. So Penn State does well to appear in the Top 50 of U.S. News, though the magazine’s bias always rankles those of us in public higher education.

Increasingly, another indication of academic quality is the number of international students on campus. For 2008-09, according to the Institute of International Education, Penn State ranked 25th nationally, with 3,741 international students at University Park. This is a dimension where the Big Ten does particularly well. Illinois is ranked No. 4, with 6,570 students, followed by Purdue at No. 5, Michigan at No. 6, Michigan State at No. 10, Ohio State at No. 14, Indiana at No. 15, Wisconsin at No. 19, and Minnesota at No. 20 with 4,120 international students.

But there are other, more recent rankings that are even more telling of Penn State’s academic quality. And these rankings have to do with the quality of our human “product”—the educated men and women, aka “alumni,” we are putting into the world year in and year out.

In late May, the Bloomberg and Business Week media organizations undertook a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs and their undergraduate alma maters.

Photo by Andy Colwell

There were only 10 institutions ranked ahead of Penn State. The University of California came in first with 12 CEOs. Penn State tied for 11th nationally with seven CEOs, along with Cornell, Notre Dame and Penn. Two of Penn State’s corporate CEOs, not incidentally, were inducted as Alumni Fellows just two weeks ago—Michael Laphen ’72 of Computer Sciences Corp and Walt Rakowich ’79 of ProLogis.

Apparently, that ranking will only get better. As many Penn Staters know by now, a Wall Street Journal survey of top corporate recruiting managers, published in mid-September, ranked Penn State No. 1 nationally as the source of graduates best suited for the world of work. “Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings,” the WSJ proclaimed, highlighting this sample of recruiter comment that best characterized Penn State graduates: “Bright, well-rounded students … with the core competencies we desire.”

Meanwhile, farther up the East Coast, the Boston Globe headline on the story screamed, “Forget Harvard: Penn State, public schools outscore Ivies in jobs.” In the Top 25, it seems the only New England university was MIT at No. 23.

No doubt about it: Penn State is “showing” very well these days. Your alma mater is a strong, vibrant, dynamic, constantly improving, never-complacent, intensely driven University with superb leadership at the top, a world-class faculty, superlative students, and a great staff. Good as we have become over the last quarter century—and particularly over the last 15 years—our best days are yet to come.

For the Glory,

Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g
Executive Director


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