Rankings, Rankings, and More Rankings!

We’re finally reaching the end of the college rankings season for 2014. Money magazine started off the season with its rankings of 665 four-year colleges based on “educational quality, affordability, and alumni earnings.” (I generally like these rankings, in spite of the inherent limitations of using Rate My Professor scores and Payscale data in lieu of more complete information.) I jumped in the fray late in August with my friends at Washington Monthly for our annual college guide and rankings. This was closely followed by a truly bizarre list from the Daily Caller of “The 52 Best Colleges In America PERIOD When You Consider Absolutely Everything That Matters.

But like any good infomercial, there’s more! Last night, the New York Times released its set of rankings focusing on how elite colleges are serving students from lower-income families. They examined the roughly 100 colleges with a four-year graduation rate of 75% or higher, only three of which (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary) are public. By examining the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants in the past three years and the net price of attendance (the total sticker price less all grant aid) for 2012-13, they created a “College Access Index” looking at how many standard deviations from the mean each college was.

My first reaction upon reading the list is that it seems a lot like what we introduced in Washington Monthly’s College Guide this year—a list of “Affordable Elite” colleges. We looked at the 224 most selective colleges (including many public universities) and ranked them using graduation rate, graduation rate performance (are they performing as well as we would expect given the students they enroll?), and student loan default rates in addition to percent Pell and net price. Four University of California colleges were in our top ten, with the NYT’s top college (Vassar) coming in fifth on our list.

I’m glad to see the New York Times focusing on economic diversity in their list, but it would be nice to look at a slightly broader swath of colleges that serve more than a handful of lower-income students. As The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, the Big Ten Conference enrolls more Pell recipients than all of the colleges ranked by the NYT. Focusing on the net price for families making between $30,000 and $48,000 per year is also a concern at these institutions due to small sample sizes. In 2011-12 (the most recent year of publicly available data), Vassar enrolled 669 first-year students, of whom 67 were in the $30,000-$48,000 income bracket.

The U.S. News & World Report college rankings also came out this morning, and not much changed from last year. Princeton, which is currently fighting a lawsuit challenging whether the entire university should be considered a nonprofit enterprise, is the top national university on the list, while Williams College in Massachusetts is the top liberal arts college. Nick Anderson at the Washington Post has put together a nice table showing changes in rankings over five years; most changes wouldn’t register as being statistically significant. Northeastern University, which has risen into the top 50 in recent years, is an exception. However, as this great piece in Boston Magazine explains, Northeastern’s only focus is to rise in the U.S. News rankings. (They’re near the bottom of the Washington Monthly rankings, in part because they’re really expensive.)

Going forward, the biggest set of rankings for the rest of the fall will be the new college football rankings—as the Bowl Championship Series rankings have been replaced by a 13-person committee. (And no, Bob Morse from U.S. News is not a member, although Condoleezza Rice is.) I like Gregg Easterbrook’s idea at ESPN about including academic performance as a component in college football rankings. That might be worth considering as a tiebreaker if the playoff committee gets deadlocked solely using on-field performance. They could also use the Washington Monthly rankings, but Minnesota has a better chance of winning a Rose Bowl before that happens.

[ADDENDUM: Let’s also not forget about the federal government’s effort to rate (not rank) colleges through the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS). That is supposed to come out this fall, as well.]

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About Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.
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