In this year's rankings, we show which schools get their students over the finish line at a reasonable price.
The main flaw in most college rankings is that they tend to measure how prestigious institutions are rather than how effectively they serve their students. Indeed, many schools have moved up the U.S. News & World Report rankings by abandoning the students they traditionally serve in favor of recruiting “a better sort” by raising their admissions standards.
The Washington Monthly has long believed that such behavior by colleges doesn’t serve the broader interests of the country, and that rewarding such behavior is wrong. And so the magazine designed its own ranking system to do the opposite: to rate colleges based on how well they perform with the students they have, regardless of the students’ backgrounds or SAT scores, on metrics that measure the widely shared national goals of increasing social mobility, producing research, an inspiring public service.
One goal that has long been missing in the magazine’s rankings, however, is cost-effectiveness. After all, college may be a good investment, but not if you pay too much for it. Pursuing a college education still makes economic sense for most students, but that won’t be true for much longer if tuitions continue to rise, as they have for years, at rates faster even than health care costs.
So this year, the Washington Monthly rankings incorporate a new measure we call the “cost-adjusted graduation rate.” This involves tweaking the calculations the magazine has long used to derive a school’s social mobility score. In the past, we predicted a college’s graduation rate using the median SAT/ACT score of each school and the percentage of its students receiving Pell Grants and then compared it to the actual graduation rate. This year, we made two changes. First, to increase our ability to predict graduation rates, we used additional student and institutional characteristics, such as the percentage of students attending full time and the admit rate. Second, to get at cost-effectiveness, we took the gap between the predicted and actual graduation rate of a school and divided it by the net price of attending that institution. Net price represents the average price that first-time, full-time students pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.) The aim of our new cost-adjusted graduation rate is to highlight those colleges that use their resources to effectively educate students at a relatively low cost—and to call out those that burn though tuition dollars without much to show for it.
What did we find? First, that colleges and universities that do well by this measure tend to be public institutions. That’s not a surprise, given that tuition at these schools is kept relatively low by state subsidies (though per-student subsidies have been declining in many states). It also turns out that quite a few minority- serving institutions, such as the University of Texas-El Paso and Elizabeth City State University, score near the top of the list.
What may be surprising, however, is that some of the highly ranked universities from U.S. News, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Southern California, rank near the bottom. Even though these institutions have high graduation rates, the types of students that they enroll are already expected to graduate at high rates. Moreover, these schools tend to be expensive, with net prices that can top more than $30,000 per year.
Here are some examples of different kinds of colleges and universities that are able to graduate the students who can be the most difficult to get across the finish line at a relatively low average net price.
SAN DIEGO STATE UNIV. (CA)
Predicted grad rate: 54%
Actual Grad Rate: 66%
Net Price: $7,817
Reason It Made the Cut: According to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, SDSU ranks twentieth in the nation for bachelor’s degrees conferred on ethnic minorities.
With a predicted graduation rate of 54 percent and an actual graduation rate of 66 percent, SDSU does an impressive job at graduating students given their demographics. This is due in part to a concerted effort by the university to collect and analyze data about its students. With data in hand, SDSU is better able to identify where students run into roadblocks and develop interventions that result in improved outcomes. These interventions include mandatory orientation for first-year and transfer students, special programs for low-income and first-generation college students, a dedicated office for the retention and success of students, and a strong partnership with San Diego’s local public schools to ensure that students in the pipeline arrive prepared.
RUTGERS UNIV.-NEWARK (NJ)
Predicted grad rate:49%
Actual Grad Rate: 63%
Net Price: $10,207
Reason It Made the Cut: Rutgers-Newark is a public, urban, nonflagship university that attracts mostly commuter students. Despite its nontraditional student population, its graduation rate is 14 points better than predicted.
According to U.S. News, Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse national university in the United States, with no racial group able to claim majority representation on campus. Its diversity, location, and relatively affordable tuition have attracted a growing student body, adding 3,000 students in less than a decade. As enrollments grow, Rutgers-Newark has pledged to remain accessible to large numbers of first-generation college students. To maintain this mission, the university actively recruits in the city of Newark, where one-quarter of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is approximately $35,000. The university’s Academic Foundations Center houses both pre-college and undergraduate programs to provide outreach and support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help ensure their success.
CALIF. STATE-FRESNO (CA)
Predicted grad rate:39%
Actual Grad Rate: 51%
Net Price: $5,590
Reason It Made the Cut: Although Fresno State’s graduation rate may seem low, this Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) performs 12 points better than predicted.
Approximately 38 percent of the students at Fresno State are Hispanic, and 52 percent receive Pell Grants. Many of the university’s students are the first in their family to go to college. While these characteristics normally yield a student population that is difficult to graduate, Fresno State does relatively well getting their students across the graduation stage. As a member of the Presidents’ Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, Fresno State has committed to gathering, reporting on, and using evidence to improve student learning. Using data has helped the institution to see where students fall through the cracks—those who are between their second and third years, especially those who lack connections and relationships with their major department. With this knowledge, department chairs reach out to every student between their second and third years to act as a point of contact and to provide support.
CITY UNIV. OF NEW YORK-STATEN ISLAND (NY)
Predicted grad rate:33%
Actual Grad Rate: 48%
Net Price: $6,675
Reason It Made the Cut: With 48 percent of incoming students receiving Pell Grants, this institution has a substantial difference between its actual versus predicted graduation rate.
As an urban, commuter institution, the College of Staten Island attracts a diverse group of students from the New York City metro area. Because of the difficulty in retaining commuter students, the college offers many programs to enrich students’ academic lives and provide incentives for them to stay invested in finishing their degree.
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