USA Today has released its new college guide, using a new data collection partner. In prior years the publisher had worked with the Princeton Review to compile college rankings. That’s a huge mistake. Their data is poorly checked. This year they chose College Factual which does a much better job at gathering and compiling data to make a college ranking. They also allow college-bound families to make custom college rankings on their own Web site.

More interesting, if you click on College Factual’s methodology page, this publisher gives legitimate reasons for ranking schools as they do. I might not agree with all of them. But they are valid points about college rankings. Most interesting was this content, which I’d like to share:

RANKINGS ARE MISLEADING, INCLUDING OURS.  

I hear what you’re thinking. I just spent all this time describing how great our rankings are and now I say they’re misleading?

Well, let me re-phrase that. Rankings by themselves are not near enough information.  They are woefully inadequate when it comes to helping students make better decisions about their higher education.  Far too many students are encouraged to rely heavily on rankings to make their decision, when they should just be one of many tools students use to determine their best fit.

Rankings are just a starting point.  Granted, we want to give students the best starting point possible, but they are step one of many more steps to come.  The problem with most rankings is that they stop at rankings.  That is just where we get started.

There is no single answer to the question “What is the best college?”.  It’s a false question.  The only question that matters is “What is the best college for YOU?”.  Each student has different strengths, abilities, interests, goals, values, limitations, preferences, etc.  One-size-fits-all rankings assume every student is exactly the same.

How long would you use a search engine that only returned the same list of top 10 pages regardless of what you entered as a search term?  Whether you were searching for “best thai restaurants in NYC”, “cheapest flights to San Fransisco” or “How to make a key lime pie”, if the top 10 pages were all the same you would find it to be a pretty useless search tool.

You can quickly see the uselessness of a search engine that acted as though all people were searching for the same thing. So why should you accept that when doing a search for one of the most important and expensive purchases of your life, your college education?

I’m glad that the data source acknowledges that rankings are incomplete for making a decision that should be based more on personal preferences. In this case choosing a college is very much like buying a car or a house, as previously discussed on past Educated Quest posts. In both cases you think about costs, curb appeal, discounts, long-term financing (car loans can go as long as 84 months) and what you have left after the debt is paid down.

However, when buying a car, cars are ranked by type. You might shop a small cross-over SUV versus a compact or mid-sized sedan, but they are not the same vehicle. The SUV is boxier, a hatchback, corners worse, but probably has more grip in the rain or the snow. The sedan will get you better engine performance, will be lower to the ground to handle better, have a more secure cargo space and more room for four or five passengers. Either you will prefer one type of vehicle or another after you have driven two of each.

But the publishers of College Factual decided to rank four-year colleges together statistically, which concerns me. Not all four-year colleges are the same. An urban public university that serves a large number of commuting and working students who do not live on campus is not the same as a flagship state school where the majority of the students are full-time residents. These schools have different missions and markets as well as different mixes of majors. Their argument is that families do not consider these differences. I agree with the point. But that would be the same as saying that all schools that play scholarship football should be ranked together without considering their level of competition. Or that Triple A baseball teams should be compared against the big league ball clubs because the baseball players are all paid to play baseball.

I’ll give three examples, all public and close by, in the same state.

Towson University is Maryland’s second-largest public college. It has more than 20,000 undergraduates, more than the University of Delaware and James Madison University, which are frequently cross-shopped against the school. It is also cross-shopped against the University of Maryland College Park as well as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The campus is located eight miles by bus from downtown Baltimore.  Towson is quite transfer-friendly; it does a great job of pulling students in from the Maryland community colleges. Yet the combination of Towson’s location as well as the greater presence of a commuting population puts the school’s four-year graduation rate at around 40 percent.

The University of Maryland-College Park is the flagship state university. It has more than 26,000 undergraduates. It is accessible to Washington DC by mass transit; there are options to travel to Baltimore, less than an hour away, as well. Two-thirds of the students who come in as freshmen are likely to graduate on time. The flagship is less friendly to transfer students because it can retain a greater share of a freshman class than Towson can. Towson retains 86 percent of their freshmen. The retention rate at College Park is 94 percent.

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) is considered to be Maryland’s Honors University. It is located near the Baltimore-Washington Technology Corridor, about an hour from both cities. It has just over 10,000 undergraduates as well as some impressive scholarship programs. UMBA is a blend of residential campus setting with a commuter population, though it is more Maryland-centric than the two sister schools. Twenty percent of the students come from outside Maryland vs. 26 percent for Towson and College Park. The retention rate is 85 percent, just lower than Towson’s. The four-year graduation rate is slightly lower (37 percent) as well. That’s not impressive, given the school’s market positioning as an honors university. But UMBC has many programs that the other two campuses do not have as well as a strong internship program. It also lacks a business school, which the other two campuses have, as well as an education school.

When all three schools, which have different markets for students, are ranked together, the result in College Factual was that Towson finished third in Overall Ranking, State Ranking and Value Ranking. College Park topped the Overall Ranking. UMBC topped the Value Ranking. College Park is helped by having the statistically better students as well as reasonable costs. UMBC is helped by being the smaller school with lower debts. That campus also shared Starting Salary data, while College Park did not. That had to affect the Value Ranking.

But if Towson is no less the performer–in fact it does better than UMBC at guiding less impressive (statistically only) students–then why is it the lowest ranked of the three? I can think of two reasons, based on the data displayed on College Factual:

  • The students had the lowest average scores on the Math and Critical Reading sections of the SAT
  • The Average Starting Salary was $40,000 for Towson, $4,000 less than it was for UMBC.

Towson costs less, does no worse at retaining and graduating students than UMBC and does the job with students who walked in with SAT scores that were, on average, 150 points lower than than the average for UMBC. To me that makes Towson the “better” school. It does more with less, if you base a college’s “quality” on statistics, which you should never do.

Suppose UMBC had an education school. Towson grants more teaching degrees than any university in Maryland. That would push the average starting salary for the whole university down. Suppose Towson added an engineering school and beefed up its computer science department to match UMBC’s. That would push the average starting salary up. You cannot compare salary statistics across an entire school when the schools have a different mix of academic programs. Sometimes you can compare students in the same major, as another site, College Measures, does for schools in Colorado, Tennessee and Virginia, and you will find the “brand name” lacking. But the differences in salary will not matter for similar jobs.

The most meaningful things that colleges do, and I’ll say this until I stop working, are to be honest with their students, lead them towards an academic or career direction and support them with a network that will be there for them for the rest of their lives. I fail to see where College Factual addresses these meaningful things. There’s only one source that will: the colleges, when you ask the right questions when you contact the right people.

So, I’m putting that USA Today guide back on the bookstore shelf.

 

 

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