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New Rankings: At Least They're Different

Like college counselors everywhere, I have done my share of ranting against the US News college rankings. The US News algorithm measures the wrong things, leads to questionable conclusions and induces dysfunctional behavior in both colleges and applicants. However: it is human nature to try to find patterns, and there is a burgeoning trove of information about all types of educational institutions crying out for analysis. Recognizing this, three other publications -- Forbes Magazine, The Economist and Washington Monthly -- have developed alternative rankings that are worth a look.

Where US News focuses on inputs (who gets in), Forbes tries to focus more on output -- how students benefit from attending a certain college. The Forbes ranking compiles information about professors, how long it takes to graduate, how notable the alumni are, how much debt the students carry, and the number of students winning national prizes upon graduation. For good measure, it lumps liberal arts colleges in with national research universities, giving Williams a chance to compete with Princeton for top billing. This makes perfect sense, given that in-coming freshmen will care most about the undergraduate experience at a larger university.

This ranking appeared for the first time in October 2015, focusing on a measure increasingly important to parents and students: return on investment. Much has been written about the investment side (and the rate of student debt). The Economist instead spotlights the return side. This ranking seeks to encapsulate the difference between how much a college's graduates earn compared with how much they might have earned if they had studied elsewhere. The ranking's nuanced algorithm manages to avoid the obvious conclusion that engineering majors make a lot of money by comparing those with similar choices, such as those who major in art or attend a Christian college.

Is the point of an education simply to earn a higher salary? In contrast to The Economist's approach, Washington Monthly focuses on how educational institutions benefit the pubic good. The ranking collects data in three broad categories: Social Mobility (the success of low-income students); Research (facutly who produce cutting-edge scholarship and students who obtain PhDs); and Service (students caring for others). Unlike so many others, this ranking seeks to broaden the way parents and sudents look at the function of higher education.

All rankings suffer from the limitations of their data. Forbes relies on self-reported Who's Who profiles. The Economist's ranking holds true only for students who sought federal financial aid. Washington Monthly veer too sharply toward social justice concerns, short-changing factors like average class size, faculty avaialbility, and readiness for careers outside of academe.

No ranking can replace first-hand knowledge of the college and the student. If you would like personal guidance in developing a well-balanced college list, call me at 847-660-8625, or click the button at the bottom of the page for a free consultation.

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