I can always tell when a piece about college rankings makes an appearance in the general media. College administrators see the piece and tend to panic while reaching out to their institutional research and/or enrollment management staffs. The question asked is typically the same: why don’t we look better in this set of college rankings? As the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine’s rankings, I get a flurry of e-mails from these panicked analysts trying to get answers for their leaders—as well as from local journalists asking questions about their hometown institution.
The most recent article to generate a burst of questions to me was on the front page of Monday’s New York Times. It noted the rise in lists that look at colleges’ value to students instead of the overall performance on a broader set of criteria. (A list of the top ten value colleges across numerous criteria can be found here.) While Washington Monthly’s bang-for-the-buck article from 2012 was not the first effort at looking at a value list (Princeton Review has that honor, to the best of my knowledge), we were the first to incorporate a cost-adjusted performance measure that accounts for student characteristics and the net price of attendance.
When I talk with institutional researchers or journalists, my answer is straightforward. To look better on a bang-for-the-buck list, colleges have to either increase their bang (higher graduation rates and lower default rates, for example) or lower their buck (with a lower net price of attendance). Prioritizing these measures does come with concerns (see Daniel Luzer’s Washington Monthly piece), but the good most likely outweighs the bad.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how these lists continue to develop, and whether they are influenced by the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings. It’s an interesting time in the world of college rankings, ratings, and guides.