University of Alabama alumni, indeed most Alabamians, delight in the high caliber of Crimson Tide athletics. Coach Nick Saban consistently sets an inspirationally high standard for excellence. The university should apply that same inspirational standard to the academic side of campus. Despite progress over the past two decades, data indicate the Capstone is clearly more committed to excelling on the football field than in its classrooms.

There are positives to acknowledge before revealing the two major negatives that have led to the decline in UA’s academic reputation over the last ten years. No other university in Alabama nor in most of the SEC matches the University of Alabama’s enrollment of academically elite students (in number, if not percentage), a truly laudatory achievement. According to the College Board, UA’s 75th percentile ACT score for Fall 2020 was 31, which is comparable with Clemson and UGA’s 75th percentile of 32, and Auburn’s 31. A significant increase in the university’s research activity is an additional bright spot. From the early 2000s till 2016, the Capstone ranked well in US News and World Report’s Annual “Best Colleges” and used its top 40 or 50 ranking to promote recruitment. In 2011, Alabama advanced to a peak of #31 among all public universities. From the 2007 through the 2015 rankings, Auburn ranked ahead of it only once.

However, by the 2022 ranking, Alabama, the state’s “flagship university,” had fallen to #67 among publicly funded universities with Auburn slotted at #42. Rankings do not necessarily tell the whole story, nor are they completely based on objective criteria. For example, a significant portion (20%) of the USNWR ranking is based on “Expert Opinion,” aka ratings by peers in other universities.  

However, drilling down into the various components of the USNWR criteria, reveals at least two important reasons for UA's decline in the ranking, factors that go beyond a popularity contest: Faculty Resources (20 % of the overall USNWR ranking) and lower selectivity, a very large contributor to the Outcomes portion (40% of overall Best Colleges rank, and includes six-year graduation, and retention rates, and level of student loan debt) of the USNWR Best Colleges criteria.  UA’s Faculty Resources ranking is an abysmal #255, with Auburn at #176.  The lower selectivity of UA admissions is revealed by its Fall 2020 25th percentile ACT score of 23, a score far lower than that of most state flagships. By contrast, Auburn’s 25th percentile score was 25. Both Clemson’s and UGA’s was 27. This lower selectivity is an important reason UA is ranked only #199 in Outcomes. If not for the scholarship-driven large number of elite students at UA, this rank would be even lower.    

People will debate how important rankings are, as well as the criteria used to calculate those rankings. Nevertheless, it is a fact the university used to brag about its top 40/50 ranking, so if it was important then, why is it not now? Moreover, aside from the overall USNWR ranking, it is logical for UA alumni and Alabama state leaders to be concerned when its state flagship, the largest university in Alabama, ranks so poorly in objective criteria such as faculty resources and selectivity. UA Administration needs to take responsibility for why these major objective components of the USNWR annual ranking are so lacking at UA.

Dr. Earl Tilford, Ph.D., earned his BA and MA in history at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. in Modern American and European Military History and Soviet and East European Politics from George Washington University. During his Air Force career, he served as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War and a nuclear targeting officer at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command. He also taught at the Air Force Academy and Air War College and served as Director of Research at the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. From 2001 to 2008, Dr. Tilford taught history and national security courses at Grove City College. Earl is the author of three books on the air war in Vietnam. In 2014, the University of Alabama Press published his latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s. He is a previous contributor to Alabama Heritage Magazine and lives in Tuscaloosa.

David Jones, MSPH, MPS, is a UA alumnus, and business entrepreneur with a background in Public Health, Social Science Research, and Holistic Health. He was born and raised in Montgomery, AL, and currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

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