It seems that nearly every major media publication in the United States these days wants to rank colleges. The latest outlet to get on board? The Economist, which scores higher-education institutions based in part on how much graduates earn. But lots of publications’ rankings look at future earnings and, more generally, ROI—return on investment. The Daily Beast’s “Down & Dirty Guide to the Best Colleges,” for example, uses data on graduates’ salaries to inform its “Best ROI” list (which appears to be far less popular than the guide’s “25 Sexiest Colleges” list). And then there’s Money, whose notably nuanced rankings system recently got a shout-out from the (rankings-less) Washington Post for “[coming] the closest” to “[cracking] the code on answering the ROI question.”
Calculating the ROI is indeed a common objective within the ever-expanding college-rankings world. Evaluating the institutions’ research capacity is a popular goal, too, as is gauging students’ social mobility. Then there are the standard academic factors—graduation rate, average GPA, faculty quality—and, of course, the quality-of-life ones: happiness, for example.
U.S. News & World Report has largely remained the most influential ranker since it launched its guide in the 1980s. But it lost its monopoly on the market once the recession hit, which created a “temporary circumstance” that, as the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell put it, “was hitting up against long-term increases in college tuition.” That’s when prospective students started to really question the worth of higher ed—“to be,” Rothwell said, “more circumspect in whether they’re willing to invest their money and time in pursuing an education.” The rankings that were developed during this era—from Forbes’s “Top Colleges” to The Upshot’s “College Access Index” to Rothwell’s own “value-added” list—are in many ways a response to these shifting priorities. They’re also a reflection of new IT capacity that enables access to and comprehensive analysis of troves of institutional data.