Where individuals go to college–or if they go at all–is a highly significant decision in a person's life. It will have lasting effects on one's social life, career prospects, student loan debts, the skills and knowledge they will gain, and so much more.
All of this is remarkably complex to throw at a teenager deciding what to do with their life, making it paramount that they have the most accurate information available when making their decision.
According to a University of Chicago poll conducted in 2023, most Americans (56%) believe obtaining a four-year college degree is not worth the investment. This skepticism is exceptionally high among individuals aged 18-34.
The main reason for the poor outlook on a college education is the increasing cost. Tuition went up an average of 12% annually from 2010 to 2022 despite an average of only 2.6% inflation. Public universities cost $104,108 for a four-year education, while private institutions cost more than $223,306. According to the Education Data Initiative, college education is 23 times more expensive today than in the 1960s.
Of course, attending college is still necessary for many to achieve their life or career goals. In 2021, 61.8% of high school graduates decided to enroll in college, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Given the amplitude of the decision, how should outlets rank universities so students can make the best possible decision for their future?
The Wall Street Journal released its annual college rankings on Wednesday. The list contained several oddities. The most notable include the lower standing of well-renowned schools like Brown University and Johns Hopkins University, as mentioned in the report, compared to the long-established college rankings system like the U.S. News College Ranking.
The two methodologies differ significantly.
The U.S. News calculates its score through 40% outcomes, 20% faculty resources, 20% expert opinion, 10% financial resources, 7% student selectivity, and 3% alums giving rate. Many facets of this score stem from inputs over outputs. They rely heavily on finances and prestige, which often do not directly impact a student's success after college.
For example, the heavily weighted 20% expert opinion metric relies primarily on prestige rather than performance. This number is scored through surveys sent out to university presidents, provosts, and admissions deans and asks them to score other schools on a scale of 1 to 5. At national universities, the U.S. News Survey asks them to rank the other 261 national universities. Although most only score about half of them, they still score many other universities. It is possible to completely understand another school by diving into all the data or removing biases for a critical metric influencing other schools' ability to gain new students and grow financially.
"But reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution's identity, such as its history, prominence in the media, or the elegance of its architecture. They are prejudices." bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell writes.
Michael Bastedo, an educational sociologist at the University of Michigan, further notes that "rankings drive reputation." It would help if you had a better reputation score to get higher than your current ranking, but your reputation score comes from the previous year's ranking. Thus, the expert opinion metric is "a self-fulfilling prophecy," according to Gladwell.
Reputation scores often work better for one-dimensional rankings. For instance, if professors in the same field have a higher view of the work of one school over another, that metric is more trustworthy than an overall rating of a school based solely on its prestige.
The reputation of your degree can still be significant in helping students get into selective graduate schools. It all depends on what each student wants to do.
The Wall Street Journal rankings focused more on outcomes than inputs. The goal was to measure how well a school improves the trajectory of its students. According to this ranking, the top three universities included Princeton, MIT, and Yale. The overall score came from 70% outcomes, 20% learning environment, and 10% diversity.
The significant 70% outcome score comes primarily from the graduation rate and ability to achieve a salary worth the education's cost. The central estimate is "how quickly the salary boost attributable to college attendance pays for the cost of college."
Baruch College, a small public school in New York, was the top performer in this metric. The estimated four-year net price is $7,744 when factoring in financial aid. The additional median salary attributable to attending Baruch over not going to college is $45,078; this means that the graduates will pay off the cost of attendance within two months.
The 20% learning environment metric comes from an extensive survey of students and recent graduates to "gather their views on the quality and frequency of learning opportunities and career preparation at their school, their satisfaction with its learning facilities, and overall recommendation score."
The Wall Street Journal highlighted La Verne University and Florida International University as learning environments that help students achieve their goals. La Verne regularly hosted workshops related to "resume building, financial literacy, and postgraduation life." One student, Catalina Valera, remarked, "I've gotten so many opportunities that I've never heard my friends [at other colleges] get offered by their professors and advisers. My experience was more hands-on." Florida International similarly helps students find well-paying careers through a large percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and teaching real-life skills.
The 10% diversity score comes from "combining metrics about the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and disability status of students and faculty." Exposure to students and faculty from different backgrounds is often an education in and of itself.
Each individual is different and has unique preferences when choosing a university. For many, the benefit of a liberal arts education is worth the rising cost; others seek the lowest-cost education for the highest possible financial gain, and others focus on the student experience.
Due to individual circumstances and field of study, one-dimensional rankings are often more valuable than overall scores. One-dimensional rankings, like WSJ's direct salary impact rankings, are a great asset for students to decide where to attend school.
With more and more students questioning the necessity of taking out large loans for college, it is vital that rankings, like the updated WSJ ranking, provide a clearer picture of what each school will offer for the price tag. Former ranking methods can still provide value if the prestige of the degree is vital to the consumer's future. Still, an increasing number of students will wisely look towards a more direct assessment of what a school can offer.
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