Rank Order

Changing college ratings

In the age of Google, the problem for consumers sometimes seems to be not too little but too much information. Unless, that is, the consumers are parents shopping for an American university. For whatever reason, there are precious few comprehensive guides to higher education outside of the annual college rankings prepared by U.S. News & World Report.

But an interesting new alternative debuted this school year, when Ohio University economist Richard Vedder collaborated with the Center for College Affordability and Productivityto develop a new college ranking system for Forbes.com. The U.S. News rankings are fundamentally flawed, Vedder argues, because they judge universities on the SAT scores of incoming students, the salaries and credentials of professors, the amount of alumni giving, and the reputation the institution enjoys among other colleges. “They are tantamount to judging a recipe from the ingredients used rather than the food produced,” he laments.

To create a more results-based system, Vedder looks at four-year graduation rates, course evaluations by students, debt incurred upon graduation (an indication of affordability), and the number of faculty and students who have won nationally competitive awards such as the Rhodes Scholarship. In short, he looks at outcomes and value instead of inputs and reputation.

There is some overlap between Vedder’s rankings and the U.S. News list. Princeton and Harvard rate near the top in both. But there are major differences. Not all the Ivy League schools landed among Vedder’s top picks: The University of Pennsylvania ranked 61st, Cornell 121st, and Dartmouth 127th, suggesting these reputed academic heavyweights might not be delivering what they promise. Duke ranked 80th, behind both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (66th) and Wake Forest (69th).

Theoretically, one purpose of a consumer guide is to encourage producers to offer more value at a lower price. U.S. News, says Vedder, has done the opposite. By emphasizing a real cost-benefit analysis, the Forbes.com system hopes to bring more rationality to the highly irrational process of choosing a college.

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