A different kind of college ranking

Joe Nocera mauls the US News and World Report Rankings (mostly deservedly) and proposes a different kind of college ranking.

The Monthly’s rankings attempt to gauge more useful measures: social mobility, for instance, or “bang for the buck.” Its top-ranked national universities this year are the University of California-San Diego and Texas A&M. Neither is ranked in the top 30 by U.S. News. All they do is graduate a higher percentage of students than you would expect given their populations — at a reasonable price.

Yes, The Washington Monthly’s rankings are yet another list compiled by magazine editors, inevitably flawed. But the point the magazine is trying to make is that this is the model of higher education we should be encouraging. Can you really disagree? I have no doubt that you can obtain a very good education at Texas A&M. As you surely can at many other institutions that don’t crack the top of the U.S. News rankings.

I went to a state-like school for undergraduate (Waterloo, in Canada) experienced a large state school (Berkeley) as a grad student, and have been teaching at Ivies. I can see the advantages of Ivies, mainly in peer effects and signaling to the job market, or in preparing you for a research career. Probably a smaller or less elite institution would have better teaching and more engaged faculty, though. That was my experience at Waterloo.

You do expose yourself to more quirks in these other institutions. My economics department at Waterloo was basically a demilitarized zone between young real business cycle theories and older Marxists. this made for an interesting education but I really should have graduated knowing something about econometrics or mainstream macroeconomics.

I don’t really see any of this as an impediment to a successful career and happy life. I am pretty sure my daughter would be happier and better balanced not going to an elite school, and I have no plans to push her in the direction of a Yale or Columbia. UCSD and Texas A&M sound just about right–possibly what I would choose if I got a do-over.

15 thoughts on “A different kind of college ranking

  1. That is surprising, even at Umass Amherst back in the day, we learned econometrics, IS/LM and rational expectations (prob because Rapping taught macro).

  2. Thanks for pointing out the rankings, Chris. One could pick at it all day, but I want to gripe with how narrow ‘service’ is defined. Largely it is people going to the military or the Peace Corps. There are many options like AmeriCorps, JVC, Teach for America and Global Health Corps that should be included.

    Anyways, what is your take on the method for measuring mobility. Brea College comes in at the top five buoyed by 90% Pell grant rate. However, it graduates 64% of students, roughly 10% points above the predicted number. Is 64% a good graduation rate for a school? To what extent are they rewarded for exceeding expectations? Is it problematic to have schools that are largely full of Pell grant students as opposed to having more schools with a slightly higher rate?

    Since the indicators on the Washington Monthly survey are different from those in US News and World Report, maybe it would be worth putting the two together to see how things average out.

  3. Interesting on what you’d choose for yourself on a re-do or your daughter. I’m a stats PhD student at a UC. I’m a huge fan of the UCs, but for undergrad, if you have the money or can get the grants for an elite school, I think you’re discounting peer effects too much in terms of academic learning (or not stating your implicit inclusion of factors other than academic learning and cost). I took upper division undergrad classes in math at Harvard when I was working there as prep for grad school, and while of course there are differences between math and stats departments, the difference in ability of the students and level of the classes was just so, almost unbelievably, enormous that it can’t be all or even a majority due to the difference between the math and stats departments. I’ve got lots of problems with the Ivies on many fronts, and I think UCSD would be a great experience, on the whole, as an undergrad. But unless you’re extremely driven and self-motivated, I’d posit that you’re going to be pushed to learn a very significant amount more in your classes as an undergrad at Harvard than at UCSD.

  4. I didn’t dive into their methodologies, but I wonder if they look at the average price paid versus the sticker price of tuition. I was the fortunate recipient of vast sums of need-based grants a selective liberal arts college, and I believe the generous financial aid at elite institutions to be under-rated.

  5. Chris: I hope your daughter has the credentials to credibly shoot for Columbia, Yale, etc. Those peer effects are massive. Anyone who claims not to condition the level she/he pitches things in class on the students being taught is either a liar or delusional; in the latter case, the delusion shouldn’t last too long, because of student revolts against things being ‘too hard.’

  6. Interesting to hear your comments about a low level of econometrics at Waterloo of all places. It highlights how unique the Trent undergrad program is. They offer mathematical economics courses in 2nd through 4th years and as many econometrics courses. All because of a prof. or two who feel it is important. It makes me wonder how these types of hidden specialties there are that are missed in the course of trying to rate universities as single entities.

  7. I never understood the “above expected graduation rate” measure: it sounds like they are rewarding fluff, i.e. giving people degrees who (probabilistically) don’t deserve it. I went to a school with the reverse of @viewfromthecave’s comment above: we had an expected rate above 100% (can you say linear regression models?!), which made it a tad hard to succeed.
    As far as public vs private, I think the ivies (or a good liberal arts college) have a lot going for them. But I’m elitist.

  8. I think that the article makes a good point. Additionally, I think that having lower amounts of college debt allows graduates to be a bit more risky and experimental in ventures post-college. For many, that additional freedom to experiment may be worth a lot more than the positive peer effects or signaling that one would gain from an Ivy or an elite liberal arts college.

  9. With a 29% increase in salaries University of California looses elete status. The public’s University of California harvests family savings, Alumni donations, supporter’s money and taxes. Cal. ranked #1 public university total academic cost (resident) as a result of the Provost’s, Chancellor’s ‘charge resident’s higher tuition’. UCB tuition is rising faster than other universities.

    Cal ranked # 2 nationally in faculty earning potential. Spending on salaries increased 29% in last six years. Believe it: Harvard College less costly.

    University of California negates promise of equality of opportunity: access, affordability. Self-absorbed Provost Breslauer Chancellor Birgeneau are outspoken on ‘charging residents much higher’ tuition.

    Birgeneau ($450,000) Breslauer ($306,000) like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving them their entitled funding. The ‘charge instate students higher tuition’ skyrocketed fees by an average 14% per year from 2006 to 2011 academic years. If they had allowed fees to rise at the same rate of inflation over past 10 years fees would still be in reach of middle income students. Breslauer Birgeneau increase disparities in higher education, defeat the promise of equality of opportunity, and create a less-educated work force.

    Republican, Democrat, and Tea Party you can help. The sluggish economy, 10% unemployment devastates family savings. Simply asking for more taxes (Prop 30, 32, 38) to spend on self-absorbed UC leadership, inefficient higher education practices, over-the-top salaries, lavish bonuses, is not the answer. Additional state tax funding must sunset:

    UCB is to maximize access to the widest number of residence at a reasonable cost. Birgeneau Breslauer’s ‘charge Californians higher tuition’ denies middle income families the transformative value of Cal.

    The California dream: keep it alive and well. Fire Provost George W Breslauer. Birgeneau resigned. Cal. leadership must accept responsibility for failing Californians.
    Opinions? UC Board of Regents [email protected] Calif. State Senators, Assembly members.