The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A different college ranking guide

During college commencement, the spotlight is obviously on those students who have graduated — but plenty who start with the intent of earning a bachelor’s degree never do. Some don’t make it for financial or family reasons, but others don’t because they made a poor choice in selecting a college to attend. With rising high school seniors  about to jump head-first into their college applications, the following post tells about a new college ranking that looks at different data — and gives different weights to traditional measures — than the famous U.S. News & World Report, with the aim of making it easier for students to see what they are “likely to get into” and where they will have the best chances of graduating. This piece was written by Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, and co-author, with Jane Sweetland, of “The Other College Guide: A Roadmap to the Right School for You.”

By Paul Glastris

It is high season for college commencements. Across America, university presidents are standing before seas of mortarboards offering students florid congratulations for earning their diplomas—and implicitly congratulating themselves for steering the institutions that made it all possible.

What these leaders seldom mention are all the students who aren’t at the ceremony. These are the ones who failed to graduate because they flunked out, ran out of money, got waylaid by work or family responsibilities, or just got discouraged. Nationally, 41 percent of students who start at four-year colleges as full-time freshmen fail to graduate after six years.

That’s an astonishingly high failure rate. Imagine if 41 percent of plane flights didn’t make it to their destinations, or 41 percent of phone connections dropped off before the call was over. Mass rebellion would ensue. High schools where 41 percent of the students don’t graduate are considered a disgrace; we label them “dropout factories” and subject them to all manner of statutory reforms, including, if they don’t improve, shutting them down. An institution of higher learning where 41 percent of students fail to graduate is, literally, just your average American college.

We’ve traditionally accepted high college failure rates out of the belief that not every student is “college material” and success is a matter of personal responsibility. While these ideas are true to some extent, they have to be weighed against another truth: in our era, a college credential is no longer just a nice career accoutrement but the only realistic chance most people have to attaining a middle class life.

Yes, not everyone wants or needs a four-year degree. For many, a two-year diploma from a community college can serve the same purpose. But failure rates at community colleges are even worse. Nationally, more that 60 percent of students who start at two-year schools fail to graduate in six years.

Rising tuition has also made it much riskier than it used to be to go to college but not get a degree. Today’s graduates, as we know, leave college with far more debt than previous generations — $28,400 on average. But the fact that they have degrees allows the overwhelming majority of graduates to earn enough to at least pay back their debts. Not so with students who wrack up debts but leave school without diplomas. They are more than four times as likely to default on their student loans.

For these and other reasons, colleges ought to be pressured to do a far better job of graduating their students. For the most part, they are not. The federal government gives institutions of higher learning more than $150 billion a year in student aid, research grants, and other subsidies, with no obligation that schools improve their grad rates (or much of anything else). The Obama administration is working on a system to rate individual college on graduation rates and other metrics and wants lawmakers to tie federal aid to those metrics, but his proposal has about zero chance of passing in this Congress. Some state governments are demanding better performance from their public universities, but private colleges get a pass.

So for now whatever discipline can be imposed on colleges has to come mostly from the marketplace—from students and parents refusing to give their tuition dollars to schools that fail their students.

Unfortunately, the most widely known consumer guide to colleges, produced by U.S. News & World Report, isn’t much help. It includes graduation numbers in its rankings, but they are overwhelmed by other measures, especially how selective and prestigious schools are. Indeed, by elevating selectivity, U.S. News creates incentives for schools to game the system by raising admissions standards and accepting fewer students who are less prepared or from lower-income backgrounds—that is, the ones most likely to need extra help graduating.

To remedy this failure in the consumer information market, author Jane Sweetland and I have written “The Other College Guide: A Roadmap to the Right School for You.” The book offers step-by-step advice on how to get into and succeed at college, plus an alternative ranking of all the nation’s four-year schools based on how well they serve the students they admit. Graduation numbers weight heavily alongside key measures like “net price” (what schools actually charge students at different family income levels after all grant aid is included). Students can easily see which schools they’re likely to get into (test scores are shown but don’t factor into the rankings), and of those, which offer the lowest prices and the best chances of graduating.

Our rankings incentivize colleges to compete by serving all students better. They are also hard to game. Schools that raise admissions standards by lowering the percentage of students of modest means they admit will go down on our ranking, not up.

Guides like ours are no substitute for government policies that hold colleges responsible for their performance. But for now, caveat emptor is the best we can do.

Here’s a statement from U.S. News:

Paul Glastris writes that U.S. News “includes graduation numbers in its rankings, but they are overwhelmed by other measures…” The use of the world “overwhelmed” is incorrect and undermines the value we place on outcome factors compared to selectivity. Outcome measurements – including graduation and freshmen retention rates – account for 30 percent of our rankings and are the most heavily weighted factors in our methodology.
Paul also perpetuates the myth that rejecting more students causes a school to rise in our rankings. He writes, “By elevating selectivity, U.S. News creates incentives for schools to game the system by raising admissions standards and accepting fewer students who are less prepared or from lower-income backgrounds—that is, the ones most likely to need extra help graduating.”
Student selectivity makes up 12.5 percent of our Best Colleges rankings methodology, the lowest ranking factor. Furthermore, if a school accepts fewer students, their U.S. News ranking will not improve. Acceptance rate counts for 1.5 percent of a school’s rank, which means that it would take a nearly 40 percentage point drop in the acceptance rate to change a college’s position in the rankings. This is virtually impossible.

Glastris responds:

If one number, 70, is more than twice as big as another number, 30, I’m not sure how it’s incorrect to say that the first overwhelms the second. In any event, as I’m sure the folks at U.S. News know (certainly every college does), selectivity is a much bigger deal in its rating system than the 12.5 figure suggests. Colleges that are more selective also do better on the magazine’s reputation (22.5 percent of the total) and unadjusted graduation rate (18 percent of the total) measures. So the easiest way for a college to rise on U.S. New’s rankings is to raise its admissions standards, as many have. Doing so usually involves accepting fewer students of modest means. This is not because of acceptance rate game playing but because lower-income students typically attend academically less-rigorous high schools and therefore tend to do less well on admissions tests and graduate college at lower rates. This is the incentive U.S. News creates, and there’s no point in denying it. The one concession the magazine has made in the last couple of years, and I applaud them for it, is to add a graduation rate performance measure (7.5 percent of the total) that factors in student demographics and in effect rewards schools that help lower-income students get their diplomas. The Washington Monthly has had such a measure in its rankings since 2005.