PayScale introduced its first college salary report in 2008, and the College Scorecard from the federal government followed last year, ushering an elephant into the hallowed halls of college admissions: What do the schools’ graduates actually earn?

Despite the hand-wringing of many in academia, who saw the immeasurable richness of a college education crassly reduced to a dollar sign, the data has wrought a sea change in the way students and families evaluate prospective colleges. Earnings data are finding their way into a proliferating number of mainstream college rankings, shifting the competitive landscape of American higher education in often surprising ways.

This fall, The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education (a unit of TES Global, and no relation to The New York Times) introduced their first college rankings.

Forty percent of their result is measures of “outcomes” — earnings, graduation rate and loan repayment rate. The other 60 percent rates the school’s resources; student engagement, as measured by student responses to a questionnaire; and “learning environment,” or diversity.

Last year The Economist released its first college rankings, and it relies even more heavily on earnings data. It took the College Scorecard earnings data and performed a multiple regression analysis to assess how much a school’s graduates earn compared with how much they might have made had they attended another school.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has issued another set of rankings, adjusting the College Scorecard salary rankings first for choice of major (since disproportionate numbers of students studying high-paying fields like engineering and business skew the results), and yet another ranking that assesses students’ expected earnings, given their characteristics when they entered college, to the actual outcome.

PayScale itself has refined its rankings in response to criticism, by including along with salary data the percentage of students who major in subjects other than high-paying science, technology, engineering and math, as well as the percentage of respondents who found “high meaning” in their work.

Both Forbes and Money magazines, in their rankings, incorporate PayScale data on earnings.

To be sure, the dowager of college rankings, U.S. News & World Report, steadfastly disdains the use of earnings or other outcomes in its rankings. While it continues to tweak its criteria, it relies primarily on measures of reputation and selectivity.

There are now so many rankings that “We’ll soon be ranking the rankings,” said Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University and author of “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.”

Rankings “drive presidents and trustees into frenzies of delight or alarm,” he said. “Meanwhile, most institutions that serve most students — underfunded public colleges, especially community colleges — aren’t even on the screen.”

One thing is clear: None of the rankings agree on which is the “best” college. The only school that shows up among the top 10 on the Wall Street Journal, Economist, Georgetown, PayScale and U.S. News lists is Harvard. But it ranks No. 1 only on one of Georgetown’s lists (earnings adjusted for choice of major).

The number of rankings is a good thing. Students and their parents certainly shouldn’t rely on only one source.

“We’ve been very clear that this is a guide for figuring how much you should spend on your education,” said Katie Bardaro, vice president for data analytics at PayScale. “In choosing college, you need to make a smart financial decision. What’s the likely return on your investment?

“Is it the only factor?” she added. “Absolutely not. But it’s an important factor.”

Stanford University is No. 1 on the recent Wall Street Journal list. It fares well on PayScale and U.S. News, too. But it falls to a distant No. 256 on The Economist’s list (which, it should be said, produced the results most at odds with other rankings).

Results diverged even more widely for smaller schools. This year’s winner on PayScale is the SUNY Maritime College, whose graduates earn a median $147,000. The school at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx enrolls fewer than 2,000 students and it offers bachelor’s degrees in engineering and science. But it only ties for 80th in U.S. News’ “regional universities north” category and isn’t even ranked by The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider a venerable liberal arts college like Washington and Lee in Virginia. It’s No. 1 on The Economist’s list. Its graduates earn a whopping $22,375 more than would have been expected based on the characteristics of entering students, the magazine calculated. But it ranks only 109th on the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education list, with an especially low score for diversity.

Women’s colleges are especially vulnerable when earnings data are incorporated. U.S. News ranks Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, No. 3 among national liberal arts colleges. It falls to No. 30 on The Wall Street Journal’s rankings, and to No. 201 on PayScale.

Yale illustrates an even starker divergence. It is No. 1 for outcomes in The Journal’s ranking; in The Economist’s, it’s near the bottom, at 1,270. The magazine estimates that a student attending Yale would earn about $10,000 a year less on average than if the student had attended another college.

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To show how sensitive the results are to the criteria used in the rankings, I asked PayScale to rank schools based on earnings but also with relatively few majors in the high-paying science fields and whose graduates reported a high level of meaning in their work.

That resulted in an entirely different list: The top five (in order) were Claremont McKenna in California, Georgetown, Wesleyan, Holy Cross and Oberlin. Liberal arts colleges — whose leaders have been some of the most vocal critics of rankings — generally fared much better using criteria that included job satisfaction. (I’m a graduate and trustee of DePauw University, a liberal arts college.)

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But does the proliferation of data — and rankings — actually help students and parents make wiser choices? “What’s clear is that rankings sell,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. “It’s not at all clear that leads to a better-informed public. There’s so much information it’s hard for any high school student to sort it out.”

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Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, said, “When I was 17, I wouldn’t have known what to make of” all the data. But Georgetown’s goal is to help students interpret it. “We need to move the needle from just presenting the earnings numbers to helping them make a decision based on that. We need to think about this using a public service model,” he said.

If nothing else, earnings are objective and, as the database grows into the millions, reliable. And they’ve helped focus attention on little-known schools that would never crack the high status barrier of the U.S. News rankings, especially the community colleges that educate the vast majority of America’s students.

In addition to SUNY Maritime, I found myself looking up some schools I’d never heard of that fared well on the earnings-based rankings: Bentley University (Massachusetts), which made both The Economist’s and Georgetown’s top 10 lists; Otis College of Art and Design (California) and Alderson Broaddus University (West Virginia), both in The Economist’s top 10; and University of the Pacific (California) and Molloy College (New York), both in Georgetown’s top 10.

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In the end, of course, deciding which college to attend is intensely personal. No ranking can assess a student’s unique personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses and match those to the “right” college.

So how would I rank the rankings? Other than its ability to confer bragging rights, which seems a dubious distinction among already status-crazed students and parents, U.S. News seems in danger of becoming an anachronism as long as it ignores outcomes.

It should go without saying that the value of an education should never be reduced to purely monetary terms. But college is a major investment; students and parents should consult PayScale and the College Scorecard in order to understand the financial implications of their decisions.

No ranking is perfect, but I found that The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education survey did a creditable job blending a wide variety of factors, including outcomes and student engagement.

As Phil Baty, rankings editor at Times Higher Education, told me this week, “The success of a college graduate should not be measured purely in terms of the salaries they earn. There’s more to life than a high salary. This is why we’ve also put an emphasis on how much the student is intellectually engaged, stimulated and stretched by their college education.”

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