College Rankings - Are They Meaningful?

Most people who have thought of applying to college, whether as a student or parent, have come across college rankings websites and magazines. The most familiar one is put out yearly by U.S. News and World Report1 (USNWR) but there are many others. These include Forbes2 magazine, the Wall Street Journal3, the Princeton Review4 in the private realm; the U.S. government recently started producing their own ranking system called the College Scorecard5. There are over 100 guidebooks which purport to rank colleges. The ranking systems differ by what categories of information gets emphasized, and the degree to which they rely on self-reporting of information by individual colleges. Each system makes subjective judgements about what is important in higher education.

College rankings reflect the SAT scores of admitted students and the reputation of the College

USNWR has tweaked their college rankings “formula6” many times since its first appearance in 1983. Currently, graduation rate, academic performance and faculty resources account for over 60 percent of a college’s score. Despite this, a group of researchers from University of Arkansas7 recently determined that USNWR’s rankings correlate almost perfectly with the average SAT scores of students who enroll, more so than earnings from jobs after graduation. They concluded that college rankings such as USNWR’s mainly reflect the caliber — mainly standardized test scores — of the students who are admitted. This has been borne out by the effort colleges have made to improve their rankings, knowing this will help them attract higher-achieving students. In addition, the “reputation” of the college is a significant factor in a college’s rankings. Colleges with a good reputation are highly ranked — meaning that a college’s ranking is in large part dependent on its previous ranking!

If college rankings mainly reflect the test scores of the students who enroll, how can a student determine the value of a specific college?

There are no definitive answers. The Brookings Institution8 has developed a method called the “value-added approach,” which uses easily available demographic data to determine expected earnings of a college’s student body after graduation, and then uses earnings data from Payscale to determine whether that college’s graduates earn more or earn less than expected. The result is that many smaller, less well-known schools produce graduates who earn more than would be expected given their demographic characteristics; top USNWR-ranked schools such as the Ivy League schools do well, but generally are not at the top. For instance, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Clarkson University in New York and Duquesne University in Pennsylvania all have higher “value-added” scores than any of the Ivy League schools. Washington Monthly magazine9 has a ranking system that assesses how well a college fosters civic engagement, promotes cutting-edge research, and improves social mobility. A Michigan State study10 attempted to determine if highly-selective colleges do a better job of preparing students to become high school math teachers. In their study, students who majored in mathematical education at a variety of colleges failed to show a significant relationship between the selectivity of a college and program quality, as measured by performance on a mathematical content test commonly given to future teachers.

Many non-elite colleges provide good value

Students and families should consider traditional college rankings such as U.S. News and World Report’s as mainly reflecting the caliber of the students who enroll in a specific college. Methods of determining how much value a given college adds to a student’s future income or career prospects is still evolving, but many colleges that are not considered “elite” do an excellent job of adding value to a student’s prospects.

  1. U.S. News Colleges. “U.S. News Best Colleges.” U.S. News & World Report, 2020, www.usnews.com/best-colleges
  2. Maria Clara Cobo, Julie Coleman, Madison Fernandez, Grace Kay and Derek Saul. “America’s Top Colleges 2019.” Forbes, Forbes Media, 2019, www.forbes.com/top-colleges/#324d7b251987.
  3. “Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings 2021.” Times Higher Education (THE), The World University Rankings, 11 Nov. 2020, www.timeshighereducation.com/rankings/united-states/2021#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats
  4. The Princeton Review and Robert Franek. “Best 386 Colleges 2021.” The Princeton Review, TPR Education IP Holdings, LLC, 2020, www.princetonreview.com/college-rankings/best-colleges.
  5. U.S. Department of Education. “College Scorecard. ” U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (OPEPD), 2020, collegescorecard.ed.gov.
  6. Robert Morse and Eric Brooks. “A More Detailed Look at the Ranking Factors.” U.S. NEWS & World Report, THE 2021 U.S. NEWS & World Report Best Colleges rankings, 2020, www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/ranking-criteria-and-weights.
  7. Wai, Jonathan. “What College Rankings Really Measure — Hint: It’s Not Quality or Value.” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc., 12 Sept 2018, theconversation.com/what-college-rankings-really-measure-hint-its-not-quality-or-value-102163
  8. Rothwell, Jonathan. “Using Earnings Data to Rank Colleges: A Value-Added Approach Updated with College Scorecard Data.” Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 25 Aug. 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/using-earnings-data-to-rank-colleges-a-value-added-approach-updated-with-college-scorecard-data.
  9. Atkins, David, et al. “Washington Monthly’s 2020 College Guide and Rankings.” Washington Monthly, 21 Oct. 2020, washingtonmonthly. com/2020college-guide.
  10. William Schmidt, Nathan Burroughs, Lee Cogan, and Richard Houang. “Are College Rankings An Indicator of Quality Education?” Forum on Public Policy, The Forum on Public Policy, 2011, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ969858.pdf.

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