The Economist names Washington and Lee the top university in its inaugural ranking

List is a good example of the form, says one analyst

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor


The Economist's ranking of colleges doesn't look like a lot of other college rankings. Washington and Lee University takes the top spot. Harvard University comes in fourth—and Yale University can be found at No. 1,270.


The top ten institutions are:

  1. Washington and Lee
  2. Babson College
  3. Villanova University
  4. Harvard
  5. Bentley University
  6. Otis College of Art and Design
  7. Lehigh University
  8. Alderson Broaddus University
  9. Texas A&M International University
  10. California State University-Bakersfield

But as Libby Nelson at Vox points out, this newest ranking is a lot like other rankings in its goals—and flaws. In this way, she says, it is a "near-perfect example of the form."

The main goals of a college ranking are to attract attention, reflect the values of the publication, and provoke readers just enough, says Nelson. In the case of The Economist, this means focusing on money—specifically in the form of alumni salaries.

The Economist calculated how much graduates of colleges could be predicted to earn based on a range of factors, including religious affiliation of the institution, average wages in the area, and percentage of students receiving Pell grants. Then, the magazine compared those predicted outcomes to "actual" earnings data listed in the College Scorecard. Schools where the Scorecard earnings were much higher than the predicted earnings were ranked higher.

Like many rankings, this methodology requires some complex statistics. But as Nelson points out, also like many rankings, some methodological red flags hide under the veneer of precision.

Expert Q&A: How to think about 'Best Colleges' lists

In The Economist's case, there are two main issues. First, in calculating the predicted earnings, the magazine partially relies on The Princeton Review's "political leftism" and "reefer madness" lists as indicators that an institution's students aren't interested in careers where they earn a lot of money.

Second, the College Scorecard earnings data captures information from both graduates and people who dropped out—but will not fully capture the earnings of alumni who entered law or medical school. So relying on the Scorecard to provide "actual" earnings can bring its own set of methodological challenges that may need to be offset to make it more accurate.

Overall, Nelson predicts that we will see an explosion of rankings in the wake of the College Scorecard data. It will be worth watching how each new attempt tries to stand out from the pack, and what each ranking reveals about the evolving priorities of students and families (D.R., The Economist, 10/29; Nelson, Vox, 10/30).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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