New players, new approaches to ranking colleges

Alumni Factor is among subscription-based college ranking services.

U.S. News & World Report still might be the 800-pound gorilla of college rankings. But an electronic transcript service could give the venerable publication a run for its money.

With a formula that rarely changes, the latest edition of the U.S. News college rankings— published Sept. 12 —looks pretty much the same as a decade ago, with very few exceptions.

More interesting are a pair of newer players to the rankings game. Both have shortcomings, but both produce a top-colleges list that looks somewhat different from the magazine’s (where Princeton and Harvard share the top spot, just like last year). And neither relies on information provided by the colleges themselves; that’s a key difference, as more and more schools have been caught fudging the numbers they give to U.S. News.

More broadly, the new players offer data intriguing even to those who don’t buy the idea that colleges can be ranked like their football teams.

The first alternative, now in its second year, comes from a company called, whose main business is serving as electronic middleman between students at 7,500 high schools and the colleges where they send transcripts. But through a college search function, the site has collected valuable and otherwise hard-to-come-by data: It knows the names of the colleges where 200,000 students nationwide applied, got accepted, and chose to attend.

Ranking automobile companies is fairly straightforward; each basically makes as many cars as it can sell, and the results are clear enough. But college is often a two-way selection.

The most prestigious ones have limited slots and regularly turn down business. So Parchment looks at what the customers with options choose.

The “Student Choice” rankings —based on a model developed by economist Caroline Hoxby about a decade ago—make no effort to measure a college’s “inputs” such as average freshman SAT scores. They do nothing to measure “outputs” like learning outcomes or alumni salaries.

Instead, they reveal only the collected wisdom of students choosing among multiple colleges.

If, for example, 75 out of 100 students accepted to both Yale and the University of Virginia choose Yale, then Yale moves up relative to Virginia in the model. The choices of every student are played out in a kind of gigantic computerized tournament, and eventually the results settle into ranking similar to how chess players are ranked.

The list that emerges contains many of the familiar names, with Harvard, Stanford, and Yale on top (few students accepted to those schools choose others instead). But distinctive colleges with a particular mission also fare well, like the Air Force Academy, which comes in No. 10.

The system has weaknesses. For instance, the pool of students is large but somewhat weighted regionally. Yet it does some things others can’t.