THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Northeastern takes offense at Forbes ranking

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / August 6, 2011

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After spending years buttressing its academic and social image and rising in prestige among colleges and universities, Northeastern University found itself ranked stunningly near the bottom this week of Forbes magazine’s annual list of the top 650 US colleges.

And, as outraged Northeastern community members were quick to point out, Forbes apparently placed the university so far down for a seemingly odd reason, that relatively few Northeastern students graduate in four years.

That should have come as no surprise. Northeastern is well-known for building job placements, or co-ops, into its academic program, and 80 percent of its students graduate in five years.

Northeastern sits at 534 on the Forbes list, which was compiled for the magazine by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Forbes reviewed the rankings and published them on its website Wednesday.

Northeastern has trumpeted its rise this year to 69th on a list of top national universities compiled by US News & World Report. That was up from its 115th ranking in 2006.

In discussion threads on the Forbes site, Northeastern supporters have fiercely criticized the school’s placement on the list and the four-year graduation standard, which counts for 17.5 percent of the overall ranking.

Respondents noted that Northeastern undergrads participate in a program in which they work full-time in the industry of their choice and typically graduate in five years as a result.

“NEU is initially at a 7.5 point disadvantage since [the survey’s] methodology defines ‘normal’ as four years,’’ one commenter wrote. “They know this, but don’t really care.’’

Students at Northeastern do not pay tuition during the six-month co-op periods, and typically, at graduation, have had three co-op placements, according to the university.

“The Forbes ranking is deeply flawed because it turns Northeastern’s greatest strength, [the] co-op, into a weakness,’’ Northeastern spokesman Michael Armini said in a statement.

Forbes special projects editor Michael Noer said in an e-mail that the magazine had to select standard data points to make comparisons, or “we wouldn’t actually be ‘comparing’ anything. Another way of stating this is that our rankings value completing school in four years.’’

He said in a phone interview that just appearing on the list of top 650 schools is a compliment, since there are more than 6,000 undergraduate institutions in the United States, including many two-year schools. “I want to say very firmly that Northeastern is a great school,’’ Noer said.

Northeastern spokeswoman Renata Nyul said in an e-mail that the Princeton Review ranked the university second in its job placement category this year, down one notch from the top ranking in 2010. And, Nyul said, Northeastern has received a record 43,285 applications for 2,800 seats in the incoming freshman class.

In the Forbes survey, student satisfaction accounts for 27.5 percent of a final ranking, determined primarily by feedback on RateMyProfessors.com.

The other elements are student debt [17.5 percent], nationally competitive honors awarded to undergraduates [7.5 percent] and post-graduate success [30 percent].

The last criteria is determined mainly by a listing of alumni in Who’s Who in America and by the salaries of alumni listed on the website PayScale.com.

The four Massachusetts schools in the Forbes top 10 were Williams College, the top-ranked institution in the country for the second straight year, Amherst College at number four, Harvard University at number six, and ninth-ranked MIT.

For more on the rankings, visit www.forbes.com/top-colleges.

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.