U.S. News came out with its 2011 list of college rankings yesterday (Harvard is #1! Shocker!). It also published a list of “great schools, great prices“. These are the schools that are supposed to offer the best education for the best price. But what defines the “best” education?
If you ask college students (or perhaps more accurately, their parents), I’d imagine quality would be defined by some mixture of knowledge learned, good academic experiences, the ability to get a job you like and having a salary that supports you when you leave.
But U.S. News doesn’t measure these things. Instead, the “value” measure is defined by an institution’s ranking on the overall U.S. News list (the higher the ranking, the higher the quality), the total cost minus the average amount of need-based aid, the percent of all students who receive need-based aid, and the percent of a school’s total cost covered by the average aid amount.
Not surprisingly, this methodology results in a lot of high-priced, private institutions at the top – those that are prestigious enough to rank high on the U.S. News list and rich enough to be generous with their grant aid. Not many public institutions, with much smaller sticker prices, end up at the top of the list.
But there are a few pieces of important information missing from the US News measure which, if included, could result in a very different list of top colleges. First, US News doesn’t include any measure of debt. Average indebtedness, percent of students taking on loans, and loan repayment rates (now available) all seem like important information to include in a “value” measure. Also missing is information on actual college outcomes. This isn’t US News’ fault, there just isn’t good data out there on whether graduates get jobs when they finish, if those jobs pay good salaries, and if students actually learned something during their years in college.
But we do have some of that data for law schools. PreLaw magazine recently released its list of 60 “value” law schools, identified based on four criteria: 1) bar passage rate above 85%, 2) average debt below $100k, 3) an employment rate above 85% nine months after graduation and 4) tuition less than $35k/year for in-state residents. The final list doesn’t include Harvard or Yale. In fact, it only includes 11 private institutions.
And yet these measures, while still imperfect, seem much closer to what students might be looking for in a ‘value’ education–i.e., good outcomes for a decent price. Now if only we had some of the same outcome measures for undergraduate programs. If we did, students and parents might actually be able to make an informed judgment on the value they get for their tuition dollars.