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Students Get New Yardsticks to Measure Colleges


Which colleges give students the best value for their money? Lots of magazines publish lists that advise students about good deals, but there’s not a lot of agreement about how to measure academic value. Every publication has its own yardstick, often with very little in common between them. The NYT:

Some of these analyses approach value as largely a function of cost: How much is tuition? What subsidies are available? Others define it as return on investment: How much do graduates earn? Some factor in student satisfaction or academic ranking or graduation rates or economic diversity, all in varying quantities.

These widely divergent definitions produce wildly divergent results. Queens College did splendidly in a list that emphasizes social mobility and civic virtue. Another New York City public college, Baruch, took third place; No. 1 was Amherst.

But on a ranking that emphasizes alumni salaries, like Payscale’s list of Colleges Worth Your Investment, Queens comes in 341st.

The vast differences between these lists is less of a problem than it might seem at first. As the Times notes, some schools, particularly those that specialize in subjects like science and engineering, send their students on to more lucrative careers than ones that specialize in, say, liberal arts, leading to higher performance on lists that emphasize alumni salaries. But if you are planning to major in liberal arts, a list that looks only at starting salaries after graduation may be less helpful than one that emphasizes the cost of the program itself.

The diversity of opinions about measuring value is a boon, and the lack of this diversity is one reason we are so skeptical about the Obama administration’s efforts to create a federal ranking system. As one Stanford professor told the Times:

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

Indeed, we’re much happier to leave this to the private sector, allowing parents and students to choose for themselves which measure makes sense to them. But we hope they do look for a better yardstick. We’ve talked about the need for colleges to feel price pressure from consumers; ensuring that parents and students have good information is a key part of this process.

[College campus photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Jane the Actuary

    I’ll just go back to my longstanding gripe on metrics which try to determine average level of subsidies, or actual price paid (vs. the “sticker price”): people speak and write as if tuition is up for negotiation I the same way as car-buying works. But it’s not: the university determines how much you can “afford” to pay by scrutinizing family finances, and, by and large, the offer they give you is what you’re stuck with. A student whose family (rightly or wrongly) concludes they can’t or won’t pay the “expected family contribution”, is pretty much SOL.

  • Chris_8304

    It is actually not true that students/parents are price takers and have to accept whatever discount the institution offers. This is especially true as the student’s “academic quality” rises. It is becoming much more common for students/parents to negotiate discounts, playing one institution off of the other. This “merit” aid is unrelated to the student’s financial declarations and is, for the most part, completely at the institution’s discretion.

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