Yesterday I learned through peers in college counseling of a college site called that completed a college ranking based on salaries. The title of the story was Colleges Where Alumni Make Less Than High School Graduates

Stories like these are nothing new. But what makes this college ranking different is that the site uses a “Smart Rating.”

The Smart Rating has four components. These components, with the weights are:

  • Financial Affordability: 25.3 percent
  • Career Readiness: 22 percent
  • Admissions Selectivity: 18.7 percent
  • Expert Opinion: 17.6 percent
  • Academic Excellence: 16.5 percent

I don’t understand why the weights got into decimal places. But a college can earn a maximum of 100 points. Harvard and Yale have 100 points. No surprise. A host of other exceptionally-selective mid-sized private research universities have 98. The University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary tie for top honors among public schools with 96 points each.

I have no argument with the first two components in StartClass’s college ranking, Financial Affordability and Career Readiness. A college should strive to be affordable as well as offer a relevant education and career development support. I have problems with the last three, in the way that StartClass uses them.

For Admissions Selectivity, I simply disagree with the idea that a college is “better” because it turns away the vast majority of those who want to go there. Higher education is perhaps the only service in America that is rating based on the numbers who do not get to use it versus the satisfaction of those who do. I have long said that many of the most selective schools would still rank highly based on student satisfaction. If for nothing else they would hold the schools in high regard because of the greater resources the school has as well as the connections that they were likely to make.

For Expert Opinion, StartClass relies on the rankings used by Forbes, U.S. News and Washington Monthly, calling those media “experts” on the quality of higher education. I cannot see folding these rankings into another college ranking if they are based on questionable assumptions from reputation surveys or criteria such as faculty research output that have little to do with educating an undergraduate student.

For Academic Excellence, StartClass lumps faculty achievement with student achievement. This is senseless when faculty have different motivations from school to school. Colleges do not share the same mission or assign the same responsibilities to their faculty. The quality of a college education depends on how well the faculty, among others, helps to guide the students towards their degree, and hopefully a rewarding life after college. It does not depend on how many awards the faculty members earn, other than possibly teaching awards.

For their news story, StartClass used only schools that had received a rating of 90 or higher. As a result, there were some pretty good schools in a college ranking of colleges that were implied to be “worthless” in terms of post-college achievements, based on salary.

In order to appear in this college ranking, graduates had to, on average after six  and ten years out of college, be earning less than high school graduates of the same age. Among these schools were:

  • College of the Atlantic (ME)
  • Grinnell College (IA)
  • Macalester College (MN)
  • Sarah Lawrence College (NY)
  • Colorado College (CO)
  • Oberlin College (OH)
  • Whitman College (WA)
  • Reed College (OR)
  • Berea College (KY)
  • New College of Florida (FL)

With the exception of New College of Florida, which is public, all of these schools are private and are very difficult to get into. Berea is a work college where students pay no tuition and fees and work to finance the rest of the costs of their education. Berea students come from Appalachia as well, one of the poorest regions in our country. If they come home after graduation, they are less likely to earn the same salaries as graduates who take jobs in a city such as New York or San Francisco. The same is true for graduates of The College of the Atlantic who have an option for only one major: Human Ecology. They are more likely to work in the natural environment than a major city where salaries are higher.

Three of these schools: Whitman, Reed and New College, are also among the Colleges That Change Lives. They are not the only Colleges That Change Lives that receive little love from this college ranking. Also making the list were:

  • Lawrence University (WI)
  • Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Cornell College (IA)
  • Knox College (IL)
  • Beloit College (WI)
  • Hendrix College (AK)
  • Earlham College (IN)

Essentially StartClass complied a college ranking that consists mainly of “worst places for high-achieving students who want to make a lot of money.” Yet, of the list of 25 schools, only Sarah Lawrence, Westmont (CA), CUNY-City College and the University of California-Santa Cruz were located in or near metropolitan areas where there is the potential to earn very high wages and remain near campus.

Further, many of these schools are noted for their achievements at sending graduates on to further education including doctoral programs as well as medical school. Graduates of these programs have to pursue more education after college to get into their careers than graduates who work in business, communications, education or engineering, to name examples. An accountant, engineer or computer programmer who is ten years out of college is more likely to have worked ten years and received raises as well as promotions than someone who went from college into further education.

A newly-minted PhD will be very early into their career six or ten years out of college. After four or five years of education, and a post-doctoral experience, that PhD will likely be an assistant professor, not always at a prestigious university. That person is not likely to earn a high salary at the start, especially if s/he is hired before s/he has completed their dissertation. S/he is also unlikely to receive a promotion early in their teaching career.

A recently graduated MD will not be far into a career ten years out of college; most of those ten years included medical school as well as a residency. That new MD will be joining or starting a practice, most likely with considerable debt from college and medical school. Given the costs of paying down that debt, a new MD is not going to be a wealthy MD for the first few years of their working life.

This StartClass ranking only served to reming me why we do not get a college ranking we really need. Colleges, in terms of serving undergraduate students, can only be measured on how they help those students to succeed and advance to the careers that they choose. Those careers might require further education. Some colleges prepare their students for that better than others. Other careers might be achievable without an advanced degree. Some colleges offer a major that is very much in demand with employers who heavily recruit entry-level employees.

In the end a good college helps students to find their direction and provides them with the network that will be there for the rest of their life.


One Comment on “A College Ranking Based on Dollars and Cents That Makes No Sense

  1. For reasons the writer stated and other reasons as well, return on investment (ROI) criterion can be used as only one of several factors in deciding on a college. Other ROI research also gives more favorable results for several of the schools cited in your article.

    Possibly, graduates of these schools more typically may enter VISTA, the Peace Corps or other volunteer service program for 1-2 years. You wrote a thoughtful article on a topic of great concern.

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