Friday, August 29, 2008

On the Forbes College Rankings

This is my final back-to-school story.

Forbes magazine just published its first college rankings. Centre College did exceptionally well -- 13th among all colleges and universities in the United States -- so you can imagine that we have been pleased. Still, modesty compels us to be a little skeptical of such a result.

A closer look at the method they used, though, increases my confidence in the result. The great weakness of the U.S. News rankings, the standard in the field, is that they are based almost entirely on inputs to education, such as endowment per student or student-teacher ratios, and not on measures of the outcomes of education. Forbes, by contrast, uses outcome measures. Specifically, the Forbes rankings, compiled by The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), used these five components:

1. Listing of Alumni in the 2008 Who's Who in America (25%)

2. Student Evaluations of Professors from (25%)

3. Four- Year Graduation Rates (16 2/3%)

4. Enrollment-adjusted numbers of students and faculty receiving nationally competitive awards (16 2/3%)

5. Average four year accumulated student debt of those borrowing money (16 2/3%)

Outcome measures are, in principle, better than inputs in figuring out what real effect a school has on students. And each of these outcome measures is not a bad one. Even the Rate My Professors score, which seems the sketchiest, is (as they show) well correlated with more commonly used measures of teaching effectiveness.

Forbes measured outcomes while controlling for the size of the school. This sensible procedure demonstrates that small liberals arts colleges really do stand out. Sure, every big U has some great student successes, but on a base of tens of thousands who pass through the ed factory. A small college with a good faculty, of which there are many, offers better teaching for most students than even the best universities. Sure, the University of Virginia (43) gets some really great students, but Centre College (13) does more with the fine students we get -- all of them, not just the stars.

I hope Forbes will push all the college rankers to focus more on outcomes, especially long-term outcomes.

Here, then, are the Forbes top 25:

1 Princeton University
2 California Institute of Technology
3 Harvard University
4 Swarthmore College
5 Williams College
6 United States Military Academy
7 Amherst College
8 Wellesley College
9 Yale University
10 Columbia University
11 Northwestern University
12 Wabash College
13 Centre College
14 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
15 Bowdoin College
16 United States Air Force Academy
17 Middlebury College
18 University of Chicago
19 Smith College
20 Pomona College
21 Wesleyan University
22 Haverford College
23 Stanford University
24 Hamilton College
25 Sarah Lawrence College


halifax said...

You know that the Forbes' are all Princeton grads, and the old man even has one of the underclass colleges named after him (for which he paid a hefty chunk of change, of course). That's not to say that Princeton shouldn't be number one, which, as a proud alum of both Princeton and Forbes college, I can support with complete objectivity.

Kerri said...

Which were the rankings in which Center was 49th last year? Was that the US news one?

Gruntled said...

Yes, U.S. News has consistently had Centre in the 40s among national liberal arts colleges. The Forbes list, though, is of all colleges and universities, in the same category with the same scale.