Why this type of university ranking may be more appealing

Unlike other university rankings, Washington Monthly magazine emphasizes socioeconimcs, favors public over private schools

university-rankingWhat is the most important factor when selecting a university?

In this depressed economic climate, tuition cost is a natural concern. Other issues ranging from degree completion rates to university reputation holds great weight.

It should be emphasized, however, that university rankings are arbitraily decided by individuals. There is no universally accepted metrics for evaluating academic excellence.

For instance, TIME has a controversial ranking system for those more interested in where alumni end up rather than university prestige.

Using an algorithm of all living people that list at least one alma mater in the United States, TIME’s ranking calculates alumni prominence based on the frequency of words they’ll have on Wikipedia pages and the more relationships they’ll have with other people and subject areas.

U.S. News & World Report ranks schools based on their mission and scholarly achievement. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that four out of the top 10 national university ranking are Ivy League Schools (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia).

(Next page: Washington Monthly’s unique university rankings)

Washington Monthly magazine recently released its annual College Guide and Rankings, with “America’s Best Colleges,” considered by some as a rival to college rankings from U.S. News & World Report. The 2014 guide features: “Best Bang for the Buck Colleges,” “Affordable Elites,” and “America’s Worst Colleges.”

But just how exactly do these rankings differ from rival publications? Are schools judged based on the percentage of students who complete their degree or overall tuition cost?

During my correspondence with Paul Glastris, editor in chief of Washington Monthly Magazine, the three factors that influence these results are civic engagement, research, and social mobility.

The social mobility criteria examines how successful schools are at recruiting and graduating students from lower-middle class economic backgrounds. Colleges that have higher rates of students on Pell grants and who then have higher graduation rates than you would predict do better than schools that have fewer Pell students and/or lower grad rates than you’d predict.

Net price of attendance is also weighed. Therefore, both the percentage of students who complete their degree and overall tuition cost are equally valid measurement considerations. The Washington Monthly editors have a more thorough account of this process here.

Glastris candidly believes his ranking method is superior to the U.S. News & World Report.

“First, theirs relies heavily on the relatively empty and controversial notion of ‘reputation’ based on a survey of college leaders’ opinions about which schools are best. Second, other metrics they use, such as exclusivity (how many students they DON’T admit) and money (including percentage of alumni who give) have negative effects on the whole higher ed system, in that they spend more and turn their backs on an average student’s rise on the U.S. News list.”

Emphasizing the significance of socioeconomics and fairness in the higher education system, Glastris argues that institutions that cater to the disadvantaged and encourage students to give back to the U.S. gain little. “It’s a recipe for a more unequal and selfish society,” he explains.

“The U.S. News rankings measure top academic performers,” said U.S. News’ Chief Data Strategist, Robert Morse. “We strive to provide students and their families with the most comprehensive data available, so we also rank the Best Value Schools — schools with high academic quality that offer great financial aid packages and discounted tuition — and offer insight into schools whose students graduate with the most and least amount of debt. Outcome-related measures, including graduation rates, account for 30 percent of the rankings and are now the most heavily weighted factors, so we’re looking at a combination of academic quality, financial aid packages and how well a school retains and graduates its students.”

Glastris says that the Washington Monthly university rankings rewards good behavior.

“To rise on our list you have to recruit and graduate more low-to-moderate income students, charge reasonable prices, encourage them to be good citizens, and produce cutting-edge research and Ph.Ds—chasing wealthy and already-well-prepared students gains you nothing on our list.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, compared with U.S. News & World Report, the top four out 10 national university rankings are public schools (curiously three out of the four are California public schools).

Click here to view Washington Monthly’s complete ranking.

What do you think about this ranking system? What role does socioeconomics play in your higher ed decision making? Please share your views in the comments section below and by connecting with us on Twitter @ecampusnews.

Michael Sharnoff is Associate Online Editor at eCampus News. Follow him @Michael_eSM.

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