What’s important in a revamped college ranking system? Part 1

A new college ranking system from Washington Monthly pulls in factors such as earnings and social mobility.

[Editor’s Note: For Part 2 of this story that delves further into the rankings of the future, check back next week]

New players in the college and university ranking game say factors like the enrollment of low-income students and ensuring they graduate, a focus on STEM, and service-minded values should have significant weight in today’s rankings.

Key points:

  • Changing the factors in college ranking systems can yield dramatic and surprising results.
  • Student earnings after college, along with loan repayments, are important and this information should be easily accessible.
  • Exclusivity alone should not determine a university’s ranking.

Every year, institutions are ranked according to any number of factors, which can vary depending on the organization doing the research. Because of the extreme fluctuations in rankings based on seemingly arbitrary standards, institutions are often, and rightly so, irked during rankings season.

But are there some ranking sytem standards and characteristics that are considered musts; are there measurements that should be included but aren’t; and are any publications or researchers getting rankings right?

(Next page: Washington Monthly enters the rankings race with three unique measurements)

Washington Monthly’s New System

The Washington Monthly ranking method is organized around three pillars: social mobility, research, and service.

The introduction from the publication notes that institutions enrolling low-income students and ensuring they graduate performed well in the ranking, as did those focusing on future scientists and service-minded values.

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Also included in the rankings are loan repayment information and student earnings years after enrolling. This is the biggest change in Washington Monthly‘s ranking methodology, notes Kevin Carey, who edits Washington Monthly‘s annual college guide. Carey also directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

All of those changes caused much movement in the rankings, with once-mediocre schools moving up the list and others taking a steep dive. When compared to U.S. News and World Report‘s rankings, the differences are evident.

While 19 out of U.S. News‘ top 20 national university rankings are private schools, the majority of Washington Monthly‘s top 20 are public institutions, including University of California-San Diego, Texas A&M, and Utah State, schools that rate nowhere near the top at U.S. News.

While a few elite schools, such as Stanford and Harvard, top the Washington Monthly list, others under-perform. Columbia, Northwestern, and Washington University in St. Louis, which rank 4th, 12th, and 15th, respectively on the U.S. News list come in 24th, 40th, and 99th in the Washington Monthly list.

Berea College, ranked 67th on U.S. News‘ list of liberal arts colleges, comes in 1st in the Washington Monthly ranking.

The rankings “bring the central problem facing American higher education into even sharper focus. It is far too easy for colleges to garner undeserved reputations for excellence by hiking tuition, burdening students with loans, and spending the money on things that have little to do with educational excellence. Meanwhile, colleges that are authentically committed to service and social mobility get far too little recognition or reward,” Carey writes.

Access the rankings here and the methodology here.

Laura Ascione