There was something a little unusual about the America's Top Colleges list published by Forbes this month. The Ivy League bombed. The holy octet of higher education has dominated other rankings for over a quarter century. But Forbes' criteria is different. It chose to "evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would," and an Ivy League education, it turns out, might not be worth a quarter million dollars.
On Forbes' list, only Princeton and Harvard made the top 10 and were both beaten by small liberal arts school Williams. Yale trailed behind at 14 and Brown at 21. Dartmouth scored a lowly 30, a far cry from its number 9 spot in U.S. News & World Report. Columbia came in at 42, beaten by lesser-known Centre College of Kentucky.
Cornell, although tongue-in-cheekly known as the "safety Ivy," was perhaps surprised to lose to fellow New York school Union College. University of Pennsylvania rounded out the Ivies at a humbling 52.
Some of these differences are misleading, since U.S. News divides its rankings into national universities (topped by Harvard, Princeton, and Yale) and national liberal arts colleges (topped by Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore), while Forbes makes every school compete on the same roster. But even this formatting choice can't explain away the Ivy League's dismal performance.
So why the difference?
Almost a quarter of the U.S. News' judgment is based on the reputation of the school, according to the peer reviews of top academics and the opinions of high school counselors. U.S. News also includes the school's average spending per student (10%) and alumni giving rate (5%).
Forbes emphatically rejects this approach. "Unlike other lists," writes Michael Noer, the executive news editor of Forbes.com, "we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school 'reputation' and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending."
U.S. News gives significant weight to "faculty resources" (20%), which includes class size, faculty salary, and the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields.
The Forbes list, on the other hand, simply asks kids if they like their school. This "student satisfaction" rating is taken primarily from evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com.
U.S. News also tries to incorporate the abilities and ambition of the student body through its student selectivity rating (15%). This figure factors in average test scores, high school class rank, and a school's acceptance rate.
Rather than test the quality of the students going in, Forbes judges the quality of the students coming out. Postgraduate success (30%) is determined mainly by the salary of alumni and mentions of alumni in Who's Who in America. The number of nationally competitive awards the students win, like the Rhodes, the Marshall, and the Fulbright, also counts for 7.5%.
Unlike U.S. News, Forbes calibrates in student debt (17.5%), which is one of the reasons why the fully-funded U.S. military academies reach such dizzying heights on its list (West Point, no. 3; Air Force Academy, no. 10; Naval Academy, no. 17).
Underlying these two different sets of criteria are two very different understandings of what quality higher education should be.
For Forbes, a good school satisfies the student at the time, and trains the student for success in the future. For U.S. News, a good school is full of high-achieving students, ample resources, and respected and accomplished professors. Also, other people think its good.
These two views overlap, of course. But as the lists prove, they're not identical.
U.S. News' metrics, with the emphasis on reputation, money, faculty resources and selectivity, highly favor the Ivy League. As some of the oldest schools in America, they had something of an advantage. These factors also all reinforce each other in an infinite feedback loop.
Reputation means more applicants means more selectivity; more selectivity means more reputation; more reputation means better professors; better professors mean more reputation means more selectivity. And money, of course, means more everything.
In other words, once you enter the upper echelons of U.S. News, it's much easier to stay there.
The Forbes list is not just an expansion of what a good college means, but a shift in definition. Since the Recession left many newly-minted BAs playing video games in parents' basements, many Americans have been reexamining the value of a college education, and whether it's worth the often oppressive price tag.
The value of college used to lie, primarily, in the access it granted to a particular social class. Nothing piqued American status-lust more than the Ivy League, with its ancient pedigree and towering graduates. Although literally just as athletic conference, the Ivy name soon became synonymous with academic excellence, social prestige, and the halls of power.
But over time, a college education has been treated less as a ticket to the social elite, and more as an economic investment, paid off in future earnings.
One reason for this shift is the increasing wage disparity between high school and college graduates. For a long time the difference in lifetime earnings between these two groups was touted as $800,000, but more recent estimates place it at the substantially more modest, although still substantial, gap of a quarter to a half million dollars, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The skyrocketing cost of tuition, and the attendant student debt, has also led many high schoolers and their parents to more closely examine the financial value of a college education.
Tuition has been increasing at well above inflation for a while. According to a 2010 study by the nonprofit College Board, the average annual cost of room, board, and tuition at an in-state college is $16,141. The equivalent cost of a private institution is $36,993.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia have all passed the $50,000 mark, approximately the average household income in America. Sarah Lawrence takes the crown at $57,556 per annum.
And of course, this money isn't all paid up front. By 2012, 46% of graduates who began their studies in 2008 will enter the shaky job market with an average of $29,000 in debt.
It's not so surprising then that the majority of Americans don't think the U.S. higher education system provided students with good value for money, as a Pew Research Center study found in May.
Given these trends, the Forbes list seems to better capture the zeitgeist. The stark financial burden of a college education demands, for many students, a stark evaluation of its financial rewards. These days, many high schoolers and their parents may consider the salaries of graduates more relevant than the number of initials after professors' names.
Even U.S. News is bowing slightly to the times, reducing its "reputation" quotient from 25 to 22.5% last year.
One might think the Ivy League, with its viciously competitive admissions, would be safe from such a judgment. Not so, says Forbes.
The Ivy League's poor showing "suggest[s] that their reputations might be a bit overblown," wrote Noer.
"It's true that the reason the Ivy Leagues fare well, score highly, is that the factors we're using they're doing well in," said Bob Morse, the man in charge of the U.S. News rankings.
But Morse defended the Ivy's domination. A school's spending per student, he said, was an important measure.
"[Ivy League schools] have a lot of resources from their big endowments. They offer a lot of services. It's very rare that you would find a college president who would say that with a third less money they could produce the same education they do now."
He also claimed that factoring in student salaries might be misleading: "A lot of students at Ivies go on to graduate schools and aren't earning their real career salary until five to ten years out."
The U.S. News ranking remains the "benchmark," he said.
But the Forbes list makes a compelling case that concrete outcomes should trump a school's status, and more and more high schoolers and their parents seem to agree. The Forbes list also helps, of course, to confer status to those schools that score the concrete outcomes.
It's an infinite feedback loop.
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