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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

‘Money’ Reaches for Objectivity in College Rankings

07/29/2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 28, 2014.

Money magazine unveiled a new set of college rankings on Monday morning, touting its list as a tool for identifying institutions that deliver “great value.”

In a world full of frivolous rankings (colleges with the best weather!), Money set out to compile a highly objective one. The result is relatively heavy on outcomes data and light on subjective prestigery like the reputation surveys used by U.S. News & World Report. To develop the rankings, Money joined with Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The list ranks 665 colleges according to 17 factors in three categories. “Quality of education” includes each college’s six-year graduation rate, student-to-faculty ratio, and a “value-added” graduation rate, which reflects the difference between the actual rate and the expected rate based on students’ academic and economic backgrounds. “Affordability” includes borrowing by students and parents, student-loan default rates, and estimates of the average net price of a degree (based on a college’s sticker price, total institutional aid, tuition inflation, and average time to graduation). And “Outcomes” includes various measures of early- and mid-career earnings, based on raw data from Payscale.com.

Naturally, critics of rankings will find plenty to quibble with. The earnings data, as Moneyacknowledges, are self-reported by only those alumni who chose to complete the survey, so it’s not a true measure of an entire class’s average salary. The net-price measure is based on averages, which means the figure might be much higher or lower than what a given student ends up paying. The ”quality of education” measure is based in part on the standardized-test scores of incoming students, a variable that says more about the socioeconomic characteristics of a college’s students than about anything else.

In short, all rankings are flawed, no matter how much precision they might imply. As one smart person has written, rankings ultimately reflect choices made by real, live human beings: “Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”

Like most other lists, this one implies a false hierarchy among vastly different institutions (Babson College, ranked No. 1 here, is described as the “overall winner”). ”It’s tough to boil down something as complicated as a college education,” Money says, “into a series of data points.” Tough, but somehow irresistible. Read more from the article here.