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October 28, 2013 5:30 PM “Bang for the Buck” and the Future of College Rankings

By Daniel Luzer

The New York Times has an interesting piece today featuring one part of our annual college guide, the ranking of the country’s best “Bang for the Buck” colleges, institutions that deliver the most to students for the least money.

We appear to have started this trend, but we’re not the only ones doing this anymore. Indeed, it’s become a staple today’s college rankings. According to the piece by Ariel Kaminer

Purists might regard such bottom-line calculations as an insult to the intellectual, social and civic value of education. But dollars-and-cents tabulations like that one (which was compiled by Washington Monthly), are the fastest-growing sector of the college rankings industry, with ever more analyses vying for the attention of high school students and their parents who are anxious about finances.

What Bang for the Buck is really about is that, as those schools have grown more expensive, so measures of their impact have increasingly become financial.

No one needs to worry much about graduates’ salaries if tuition is only $300 a year. When total annual cost pushes into the $40,000 range, it’s obvious why parents and students start to ask what kids “get” out of college; it’s about the money.

Particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, these new, thrifty students and their financially anxious parents turn to rankings measures like these. And the rankings organizations respond accordingly. According to the article,

U.S. News and World Report, whose academic rankings have long been derided — and obsessively followed — by college presidents, now publishes “best value” lists as well.
Princeton Review, which has advised decades of prospective students on the best party schools, more recently began listing the best value schools, too.
Forbes Magazine got in the is-it-worth-the-money game too, as did, among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Alumni Factor, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Payscale, a company that gathers data about the job market.

Some critics contend that the measure is a little strange. What is the “value” of an education, really? This is particularly troublesome now that the Obama administration has announced plans to start measuring “value” as a way of distributing federal financial aid. From the Kaminer article:

But Carolyn Hoxby, a Stanford professor and an author of an influential study about the failures of college as an engine for social mobility, said the effort is doomed to fail.

Hoxby suggests that it’s unlikely the federal government will be able to generate useful measures because it simply doesn’t have the data it needs. As she explains, a good measure would take into account both more sophisticated information about student outcomes (both “earning and employment, but also…do people have stable families, how do their kids turn out, do they end up dependent on social programs”) and also data about who goes into the college (many college have better “outcomes” simply because they start out with more accomplished high school students).

As Hoxby said, “I do not believe the federal government currently has the capacity to generate a ratings system that will even be neutral. I think it’s more likely that it will be harmful to students.”

Maybe, but the goal here should not be to come up with America’s most perfect ranking. The real impact of college rankings system, as we’ve seen from 30 years of U.S. News, is that they cause colleges to behave differently. If we measure the percent of alumni giving colleges will call graduates and try to get them all to contribute “at least $5,” to the alumni fund even though that sort of thing would be economically irrational without the rankings.

If college rankings start to prioritize low cost, sufficient salaries, and high employment, well, wouldn’t that be a pretty good thing for American higher education? Sure such “bottom-line calculations” might be “an insult to the intellectual, social and civic value of education,” but there’s no purity left in this industry; bringing some practical calculations back in might be a great reform.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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