Printed on: September 18, 2012

New players, new approaches to ranking American colleges

By Justin Pope
AP education writer

U.S. News & World Report may still be the 800-pound gorilla of college rankings. But with a formula that rarely changes, the latest edition -- out Wednesday -- looks pretty much the same as a decade ago, with very few exceptions.

More interesting are a pair of newer players to the rankings game. Both have shortcomings, but both produce a top-colleges list that looks somewhat different from the magazine's (where Princeton and Harvard share the top spot, just like last year). And neither relies on information provided by the colleges themselves; more and more schools have been caught fudging the numbers they give to U.S. News.

The first, now in its second year, comes from a company called Parchment.com, whose main business is serving as electronic middleman between students at 7,500 high schools and the colleges where they send transcripts. But through a college search function, the site has collected valuable and otherwise hard-to-come-by data: It knows the names of the colleges where 200,000 students nationwide applied, got accepted and chose to attend.

The "Student Choice" rankings -- based on a model developed by economist Caroline Hoxby about a decade ago -- make no effort to measure a college's "inputs" such as average freshman SAT scores. They do nothing to measure "outputs" like learning outcomes or alumni salaries.

Instead, they reveal only the collected wisdom of students choosing among multiple colleges. If, for example, 75 out of 100 students accepted to both Yale and the University of Virginia choose Yale, then Yale moves up relative to Virginia in the model. The choices of every student are played out in a kind of gigantic computerized tournament, and eventually the results settle into ranking similar to how chess players are ranked.

The list that emerges contains many of the familiar names, with Harvard, Stanford and Yale on top (few students accepted to those schools choose others instead). But distinctive colleges with a particular mission fare well, like the Air Force Academy, which comes in No. 10.

The system has weaknesses. The pool of students is large but somewhat weighted regionally. But it does some things others can't. To the extent students reward value, the rankings do, too (tuition-free Cooper Union in New York City scores an impressive 43rd). And it allows schools of all sizes to be ranked on the same list, unlike U.S. News, which separates national universities and liberal arts colleges. That's helpful because in practice, students are often choosing between a big and a small school, said general manager Brent Pirruccello, who helped create the rankings. Amherst College, No. 2 on the U.S. News liberal arts list, is the top liberal arts school in the Student Choice rankings, at No. 9 overall.

The second new system, which debuted last week, focuses on the other end of college -- alumni satisfaction. Until now, individual colleges have surveyed their alumni, but surveying enough people across colleges to compare the results has been too complex.

A new company called The Alumni Factor is trying, claiming it's surveyed and interviewed 42,000 alumni of 450 colleges over the past four years, and is now publishing the results on 177 well-known schools where it says it has enough data to be statistically reliable (at least around 200 alumni per school). The surveys try to pin down objective results on 15 attributes. Among them: intellectual and social development, friendships made and even overall happiness of graduates. Other attributes are purely financial, such as percentage of graduates earning more than $150,000.