Use different college rankings for different goals

Numbers contain lots of information, but it is important to discern which numbers are most valuable to you when making a decision.

The 2024 college rankings of two top publications completely revised their criteria to focus on different goals. U.S. News and World Report highlights many points to consider when applying to college. Whereas, The Wall Street Journal focuses on the outcomes after graduating from college.

These opposite approaches come to life in reviewing the rankings of two popular local schools: Dartmouth College, a national university, compared to Middlebury College, a liberal arts school. Both colleges are popular with Vermont applicants.

U.S. News continues to separate national universities from liberal arts colleges, each with their own ranking. Thus, Dartmouth is 18 and Middlebury is 11; however, these schools are not compared against each other since they are not listed in the same category.

Prior rankings have been under fire due to questionable data provided to U.S. News by some colleges. This year, they shifted their reliance to national data from the U.S. Department of Education and other statistical sources. Changes in their methodology include dropping some factors, changing the weights of several criteria and introducing new variables.

The new U.S. News formula includes 19 criteria. They added earning outcomes allocated at 5 percent, contrasted to The Wall Street Journal at 70 percent. This is the earnings boost from attending college compared to a high school graduate’s salary from the same state where the college is located.

The largest factor is 20 percent toward peer assessment, defined as the academic reputation. U.S. News gathers survey data collected from college presidents, provosts and deans of admissions. This assessment can factor in the college’s selectivity index, which is the number of applicants who are admitted compared to the total applicant pool.

The next top criteria for U.S. News are graduation rates at 16 percent and graduation rate performance at 10 percent.

The contrasting ranking is from The Wall Street Journal, which combines national universities and liberal arts colleges into one list. In this case, all schools are compared to one another. Dartmouth remains near the top at 21; however, Middlebury falls to 131.

The Wall Street Journal has only three criteria: 70 percent student outcomes, 20 percent learning environment and 10 percent diversity of faculty and students. The statistical analysis is entirely from government data and independent student surveys.

This outcome-focused analysis includes graduation rates and graduate salaries. These measurements include calculating the cost of attendance against student performance.

The Wall Street Journal methodology starts with the average net price to attend college. These factors include the average annual cost of attendance, tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and any grants or scholarships.

The estimated total net price for four years of attending the college is divided by the median salary of its graduates compared to the high school graduate in the state where the college is located. The final calculation explains the salary differential in attending that college compared to its cost.

However, these outcomes are based on salary averages that do not report varying college majors. For example, Forbes reports computer science majors at Purdue University (ranked 300) earn $124,000 compared to English literature majors from Yale (ranked third) earning $64,000, four years after graduation.

Not all ranking criteria are created equal. Each publication has different variables with distinct focuses. Each list has detailed definitions and weights: it can be like comparing apples to oranges. Each family should focus on specific data components that match their priorities, whether it be a great college experience or a great post-college salary.

Using data to create a college list is not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, both rankings do not include athletic recruitment information for students who may want to play a sport in college.

Division 1 schools, like Dartmouth, are typically national universities that may have more competitive overall criteria. This could sway a student to consider a Division 3 college, like Middlebury, that has a different athletic profile. For example, the 2023 NCAA skiing championships listed Dartmouth fifth and Middlebury tenth.

Each student should consider their unique objectives for their college experience. Some may focus on the close-knit community, rather than salary outcomes. To develop a personal ranking, there can be an overlap between ranking criteria combining various elements. Identifying goals enables using rankings to your advantage.

(Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.)