There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from open-enrollment community colleges to highly selective Ivy League institutions, from colleges with historical missions to educate the underserved to universities exploring the cutting edge of online education.
So—which college is the best in the nation?
This conflict between acknowledging the full variety of colleges—each with its own role to play and students to serve—and attempting to identify which schools are most successful at leading their graduates to fulfilling lives and careers is the core challenge that any attempt to rank colleges and universities faces. Yet despite this considerable hurdle, in recent years the number of outlets offering college rankings lists has proliferated and is likely to continue to grow as federal and state governments release more data on postsecondary institutions. The rankings published by U.S. News & World Report were the first, arriving on newsstands in 1983. But since then, many other outlets have joined the fray, including Washington Monthly, Money magazine, The Economist, The New York Times’ Upshot, Forbes, and several others.
Indeed, in 2013 President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Education would produce its own system for rating higher education institutions, though notably this proposed effort would only have given colleges a score, not rank them as the media lists do. But after nearly two years of discussions with college administrators and researchers, the department decided not to produce ratings, opting instead just to release more data about these institutions, including the average salary for students 10 years after they enrolled.
The department’s decision to abandon its ratings proposal, after facing criticism from many parts of the higher education community, demonstrates how challenging it can be to measure a college’s performance and the consequences that a particular rating or ranking could have for that institution. The federal agency originally sought to use the ratings as a tool for holding colleges more accountable, perhaps even tying an institution’s students’ eligibility to receive financial aid to how well the school performed by the Education Department’s measures. But, for example, if a college’s graduation rate becomes a key part of the rating, would two-year colleges or other institutions with high transfer rates receive unfavorable ratings?
Even though colleges and universities typically do not face any direct accountability for their ranking in the lists published by media outlets, these rankings are widely considered to have substantial impact on the ways some postsecondary institutions operate, as they seek more favorable rankings. From which types of students they seek to enroll to how they allocate their financial resources for faculty and campus development, administrators and trustees often have to consider how important a rise or fall on the list might be to the their institutions’ reputations and revenue.
Journalists should approach writing about college rankings and ratings with insight that goes beyond the rank or score a college received—and whether it’s up or down this year—to offer analysis on how and why the institution measured up that way in that particular list. The best way to achieve these deeper insights is to explore the data used to create the ranking. Most college rankings start with the data available publicly through the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal organization that collects and analyzes these numbers. There is a wealth of information available from this resource, but journalists should note that for each institution, the reported data are only for students who were first-time, full-time enrollees in college. This means that for institutions that enroll many adults who are returning to school (e.g. community colleges) or accept many transfer students (regional public universities), the NCES data might not be the most accurate representation of how well the college is serving its students. This note of caution is particularly relevant for the data regarding graduation and retention rates.
College rankings increasingly are using data that reflect the earning potential of students at each institution. In the fall of 2015, the College Scorecard the federal government produces for the first time added data for the average income for students at each college 10 years after they enrolled. These data are a boon for researchers, rankers, journalists, and—of course—students and families. It should be noted, however, that these data are for all students who enrolled that year, regardless of whether they graduated. For colleges in which many students drop out or transfer before earning a degree, the earnings number reported on the Scorecard is likely lower than it might be for actual graduates of that institution. These scorecard data also are for the institution overall, not program-by-program, so reporters should examine whether the college produces many graduates in science, engineering, or business disciplines, for instance, that might be tipping the scales.
Several state education departments do gather earnings data at the program level for colleges and universities in their borders. Check with your department to see whether it collects such data that you might use to cross-check what you see listed in rankings.
When reporting about rankings, also look to see whether the publisher gathers any proprietary data. For example, U.S. News & World Report each year commissions a survey of the top administrators of every college in an effort to measure each institution’s reputation. And, on the opposite end, the Princeton Review surveys more than 100,000 college students across the country each year to find the nation’s best party schools and least happy students.