For the first time in nearly three decades, UVA is no longer one of the top three public universities in the country, according to the 2020 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings released in September. The University also tumbled out of U.S. News’ top 25 list of national universities.

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This year’s sought-after rankings place UVA as the fourth best public university behind No. 1 University of California, Los Angeles, No. 2 University of California, Berkeley, and No. 3 University of Michigan. Overall, the University fell from No. 25 to No. 28 on the list of the best national universities, one spot above the University of North Carolina, which tied for No. 29.

“Rankings are something that do not drive what we do and shouldn’t drive what we do, but we obviously have to pay attention to them,” says UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92). “I’m competitive enough that if we are going to be ranked, I’d like to be ranked highly.”

U.S. News considers a variety of factors in its scoring, but emphasizes “outcomes,” which include retention and graduation rates. UVA did well in some of those categories. And, at 94 percent, its average six-year graduation rate was higher than any of the top three public universities.

But at the top, even minor changes can lead to a drop. “In this case, UVA performed worse in faculty resources and graduation rate performance,” writes U.S. News’ chief data strategist Robert Morse in an email. And that superior 94 percent graduation rate was still a point worse than last year and, more directly affecting its ranking, four points worse than the expected graduation rate assigned to UVA, a seemingly impossible 98 percent.

UVA’s relatively small portion of low-income Pell Grant students hurt UVA in a new measure, “social mobility.” With data from federal Pell Grants, that metric evaluates how well schools serve low-income students. UVA tied at No. 328. By comparison, UCLA sits at No. 13, Berkeley is No. 70 and Michigan comes in at No. 291.

Ryan says the new emphasis on social mobility aligns with his recently approved strategic plan and its emphasis on attracting and supporting first-generation and low-income students. He says, “I’m pretty confident that we will rise in the rankings, but at the same time, a single ranking by U.S. News & World Report—no one should ever let that define an institution.”  

This summer, UVA came in fourth on Kiplinger’s list of best values in public colleges, and 10th in Money magazine’s Best Colleges for Your Money.