The college rankings business is a lucrative one and there are a number of different players with a number of different measures. Forbes recently released its 2011 rankings and they have a particular angle that seems aimed at unseating the rankings of US News & World Report:
Our annual ranking of the 650 best undergraduate institutions focuses on the things that matter the most to students: quality of teaching, great career prospects, graduation rates and low levels of debt. Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school “reputation” and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending. We try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would: Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree? The rankings are prepared exclusively for Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank founded by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder.
With phrases like “ephemeral measures” and “ill-conceived metrics,” Forbes claims to have a better methodology. This new approach helps fill a particular niche in the college rankings market: those looking for the “biggest bang for your educational buck.”
In their rankings, 30% of the final score is based on “Post-Graduate Success.” This is comprised of three values: “Listings of Alumni in Who’s Who in America” (10%), “Salary of Alumni from payscale.com” (15%), and “Alumni in Forbes/CCAP Corporate Officers List” (5%). These may be good measures (Forbes goes to some effort to defend them) but I think there is a larger issue at play here: are these good measures by which to evaluate a college degree and experience? Is a college degree simply about obtaining a certain income and status?
At this point, many rankings and assessment tools rely on the experiences of students while they are in school. But, with an increasing price for a college degree and a growing interest in showing that college students do learn important skills and content in college, I think we’ll see more measures of and a greater emphasis placed on post-graduation information. This push will probably come from both outsiders, Forbes, parents and students, the government, etc., and college insiders. This could be good and bad. On the good side, it could help schools tailor their offerings and training to what students need to succeed in the adult world. On the bad side, if value or bang-for-your-buck becomes the overriding concern, college and particular degrees simply become paths to higher or lower-income outcomes. This could particularly harm liberal arts schools or non-professional majors.
In the coming years, perhaps Forbes will steal some of the market away from US News with the financial angle. But this push is not without consequences for everyone involved.
(Here is another methodological concern: 17.5% of a school’s total score is based on ratings from RateMyProfessors.com. Forbes suggests it cannot be manipulated by schools and is uniform across schools but this is a pretty high percentage.)
(Related: a new report rates colleges by debt per degree. A quick explanation:
Its authors say they aim to give a more complete picture of higher education — rather than judging by graduation rates alone or by default rates alone — by dividing the total amount of money undergraduates borrow at a college by the number of degrees it awards.
We’ll see if this catches on.)