What's in a ranking?

Lists capture public attention but fail to aptly measure schools, argues expert

Multiple college rankings come out each year, and none of them really measures quality, writes Jeffrey Selingo in the Washington Post's "Grade Point."

"The concept of quality in American higher education remains an ambiguous and ill-defined term," he says. Generally, it is based off of three standards:

  • Selectivity: a measure of who enters the institution;
  • Wealth: spending the most money on students, faculty, and research; and
  • Research: attracting top names in various fields.

"None of those measures look at what students actually learn in college or what happens to students after they graduate," Selingo writes.

Can you calculate a college's value? New rankings hope to do just that.

U.S. News & World Report's national rankings, published annually since 1989, set the bar for all other college lists, says Kim Clark, a senior writer at Money and former U.S. News reporter.

Originally, U.S. News based its list on reputational surveys. Now it also includes measures such as faculty resources and students' class ranks and SAT scores.

Meanwhile, Money's rankings bring up a very different list of top schools. One-third of the rankings are based on student outcomes—rather than inputs. Much of that is based on how much alumni earn, but even this measure has its problems.

When comparing alumni outcomes, regional variances in living expenses and salaries can skew the rankings. For example, Bentley University comes in at No. 15 in Money's rankings, but is relegated to a Regional University category in U.S. News. Bentley has a large accounting program, and many students go on to work in nearby Boston after graduation. Higher salaries in the more expensive city give the school an advantage in Money's rankings over an institution that sends many alumni to a less expensive area such as Des Moines (Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/30; U.S. News & World Report, National Universities Rankings, accessed 8/3; Money, Best Colleges, accessed 8/3).

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