College Rankings Look at Many Factors

19 December, 2015

From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

Students in the United States usually start their college search by looking at rankings.

Which are best academically? Which has the most affordable tuition?

It can be a difficult decision. The U.S. has many public, private and even online schools. Students can choose from two-year colleges, four-year colleges and trade schools. There are over 1,700 two-year colleges, 2,900 four-year colleges and 4,700 schools giving degrees.

Choosing the right college is very important to students and their families. They look to rankings, or lists of schools, to make that choice. But rankings are not as simple as they seem.

File - A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
File - A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

How do you rank a college?

US News and World Report uses information from more than 1,000 schools to create a list of the top universities. The Princeton Review and Forbes are also well-known lists that rank schools.

U.S. News and World Report measures selectivity. Selectivity means that the school accepts a small percent of applicants. Schools can pick and choose from their applicants. The applicants must have excellent academic records and very high test scores.

The college rankings are determined by several factors. How well teachers are paid is one. The rate of graduation is important, too.

The problem, says Jonathan Rothwell, an expert at Brookings, is that schools that are selective may benefit from better students. It does not mean that they provide the best education.

Others have released rankings that measure how much money students make after graduating. For example, the Economist released college rankings in October. Because employment after graduation is uncertain, some students want to learn if their school will give them skills to find a high-paying career.

Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Kreuge are Harvard researchers. They looked at two groups of students with similar test scores. One group could have gone to selective schools. But they chose to attend schools that were less selective.

That group of students still made the same amount of money as the students who went to selective schools. This suggests that it is the student, not the school that creates the success.

Jonathan Rothwell says that we do not need more ranking systems. He says we need better ones. He, too, has created a ranking system. It is called the "value-added" approach. His approach shows the contribution of the college education to student salaries.

What to do about the problem?

The growing number of college ranking systems suggests that students and parents demand better information about colleges.

As the cost of higher education becomes too much for many students, policymakers have to deal with how to control those costs.

The U.S. Department of Education says that in 2012-2013, the average cost of an education at a four-year private college was $35,074 per year. Four-year public colleges cost $17,474 on average.

In 1982 to 1983, the average cost of an education at a four-year private college was $16,797. Four-year public colleges cost $7,534 on average. These numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Developing a new, effective college ranking system was one of the Obama administration's important strategies for improving higher education. In 2013, the Department of Education announced a new plan for ranking colleges. It looks at the annual cost after financial aid, the school's graduation rate and the annual salary for graduates.

President Obama announced the plan:

"Our first priority is aimed at providing better value for students -- making sure that families and taxpayers are getting what we pay for. Today, I'm directing Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, to lead an effort to develop a new rating system for America's colleges before the 2015 college year. I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity. Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed, and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents."

The Obama administration's goal is to give students information to help them choose the school that is right for them – and avoid unnecessary loans, too.

The Obama Administration has not released college rankings. However, in September, the U.S. Department of Education released the College Scorecard, which has information about many colleges in the U.S. It offers information about programs, schools and costs. The new college scorecard does not rank schools.

Jonathan Rothwell says that the College Scorecard has weaknesses. It is based on students who took out loans or received money from the U.S. government. The scorecard also calculates students' salaries for 10 years after graduation. That may or may not be enough time to show the value of a college degree.

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck and Hai Do were the editors.


Words in This Story

rankings n. a list of people or things that are ordered according to their quality, ability, size, etc.

online – adj. done over the Internet

degree n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university

inflationn. a continual increase in the price of goods and services

selectivityn. choosing only the best people or things

approach n. a way of doing or thinking about something

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