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Tackling the Measuring Challenge with College Rankings

Twenty years ago, Princeton University topped the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Not much has changed in two decades — Princeton topped last year’s list, as well.

That’s not to suggest Princeton isn’t worthy — clearly the Ivy League university is a premier institution, and its graduates typically land good jobs and develop substantive and rewarding careers.

But here’s the rub for anyone who is not heading for Princeton: It’s hard for parents and students to differentiate the outcomes of the thousands of other schools that don’t top the U.S. News rankings.

As this piece on The Washington Post’s higher-ed blog notes  that’s likely why a number of newer rankings and other studies have emerged that seek to address that problem by looking more closely at the employment and earning records of college graduates and weighing that against the cost of attending college and chances of graduating on time.

Author Jeffrey J. Selingo observes that these rankings, from sources such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Gallup, are based largely on new data sources about recent college graduates.

He focuses on Money magazine’s rankings, one of the first to use data on the employment outcomes of graduates. The magazine tweaks its formula every year, and this year added a data set known as the “Chetty data” — a reference to Stanford economist Raj Chetty, who has led a team of economists that received access to millions of anonymous tax records that span generations.

(The group has published headline-grabbing studies based on the data, including one contending that upward mobility in the U.S. has not changed in the past 50 years.)

Money magazine included the Chetty data as part of 27 measures that it uses to rank schools in an effort to illustrate the track record of a campus in moving less-affluent students into the upper middle class, Selingo writes, and “the results were grim for a higher education system that claims to be a ladder to upward mobility.

“The data showed, for example, that the City University of New York propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined. The California State University system advanced three times as many.”

While there’s a downside to the Chetty data — it includes students who enrolled in college in the late 1990s and is therefore dated — the author said the approach is a positive development for families looking to differentiate between the outcomes of thousands of colleges.

And he foresees the ongoing development of newer and better tools that help provide better consumer information on which to base a momentous decision and investment.

By Cary Stemle, Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed

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