How to Choose a College

Visiting Scholar Richard Vedder
Visiting Scholar
Richard Vedder
This time of year, as they make the momentous decision of where to go to college, high school seniors are turning to popular rankings compiled by magazines like U.S. News & World Report. There are competing scorecards from the Princeton Review and Kiplinger's, but U.S. News' product is way out in front in visibility; in addition to its usual circulation of 2 million, it sells 9,000 newsstand copies and some 20,000 of its college guide book.

U.S. News evaluates educational quality by looking inside colleges at measures like faculty-student ratios, admissions selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving.

I think the U.S. News rankings ought to get a D. They're roughly equivalent to evaluating a chef based on the ingredients he or she uses. At the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, a two-year-old research organization in Washington, D.C. with a free-market bent, we evaluate colleges on results. Do students like their courses? How successful are they once they graduate? In short, we review the meal.

Our measures begin with student evaluations posted on Ratemyprofessors.com, a nine-year-old site with 6.8 million student-generated evaluations. We look at college graduation rates (as does U.S. News). We also calculate the percent of students winning awards like Rhodes Scholarships and undergraduate Fulbright travel grants. For vocational success we turn to Who's Who in America. Though imperfect, it is the only comprehensive listing of professional achievement that includes undergraduate affiliations. (Our complete listing of more than 200 schools can be viewed at Forbes.com.)

The top CCAP schools rank near the top of the U.S. News list. But just below the top there are some surprises. Duke, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania make the top 10 list at U.S. News but not at CCAP. Duke students don't rate their professors high enough. At the University of Pennsylvania not enough grads made it into Who's Who. Brown and Northwestern, both ranked 14 by U.S. News, and Dartmouth College, ranked 11 by U.S. News, all make it onto our top 10. The University of Alabama, which got great reviews from students, came in a number 7 on our national public university ranking; it's at position 42 on U.S. News' list.

The biggest surprises come in our list of liberal arts colleges. Wabash doesn't make the top 50 on U.S. News' list but ranks tenth with CCAP because of the awards its students won and its showing in Who's Who. Several other schools not high on the U.S. News list, including Whitman, Washington & Lee, Barnard and the U.S. Military Academy (a.k.a. West Point), are in our top 10. A number of excellent smaller liberal arts colleges do poorly on the U.S. News list but fare very well on the CCAP list, including Reed (twelfth) and Knox (sixteenth). Like other consumers, students want satisfaction and results, which is what CCAP measures.

Richard Vedder is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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