College rankings are out: which is better, UO or OSU?

The Wall Street Journal published its much-awaited 2021 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (WSJ/THE) College Rankings today.

So which is superior, the University of Oregon or Oregon State University?

The UO finished 225th and OSU finished 318th among nearly 800 U.S. colleges and universities examined in the WSJ/THE rankings. 

So now what do you know? Not much.

The fact is that if you depend on national college ranking programs in picking a school, it’s a crapshoot. That’s because each ranking system uses its own unique methodology in evaluating schools and assigns different percentages to ranking elements, leading to wildly different conclusions. 

The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges 2021 methodology, for example, places UO at #103 and OSU at #153 among national universities in the United States. National universities are schools that offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and are committed to producing groundbreaking research. Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings places UO at #118 and OSU at #159 among national universities. 

Key indicators in the WSJ/THE rankings are based on 15 factors across four main categories: Forty percent of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including graduates’ salaries and debt; 30% comes from academic resources, including how much the college spends on teaching; 20% from student engagement, including whether students feel prepared to use their education in the real world, and 10% from the learning environment, including the diversity of the student body and academic staff.

Some ranking systems focus on the quality of incoming students at a university, examining standardized-test scores and how students ranked in their high-school class. Some also give significant weight to outside opinion, conducting surveys of university administrators to find out if they think competing colleges are doing a good job. The WSJ/THE College Rankings take a different approach, emphasizing the return on investment students see after they graduate. Schools that fare the best on this list have graduates who generally are satisfied with their educational experience and land relatively high-paying jobs that can help them pay down student loans.

That leads to the top-rated schools in the WSJ/THE College Rankings being those with a lot of money. “Metrics used around academic resources, graduate student debt, the diversity of the faculty and the salary of graduates certainly favor institutions with large endowments,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Looking at one common rating category, Social Mobility, illustrates the wide variability in each ranking system and shows how ratings can be influenced. 

In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, social mobility counts for 5% of the final figure. The indicator measures only how well schools graduated students who received federal Pell Grants. Students receiving these grants typically come from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000. 

The social mobility ranking is computed by aggregating the two ranking factors assessing graduation rates of Pell-awarded students:

  • Pell Grant graduation rates incorporate six-year graduation rates of Pell Grant students, adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. This is computed as a two-year rolling average.
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance compares each school’s six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients with its six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients by dividing the former into the latter, then adjusting to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. The higher a school’s Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate up to the rates being equal, the better it scores. This, too, is computed as a two-year rolling average. 

Compare this with the complexity of how the Washington Monthly deals with social mobility in its rating system.

The social mobility portion of the national rankings by Washington Monthly considers a college’s graduation rate over eight years for all students, a predicted graduation based on the percentage of Pell recipients and first-generation students, the percentage of students receiving student loans, the admit rate, the racial/ethnic and gender makeup of the student body, the number of students (overall and full-time), and whether a college is primarily residential. 

The actual eight-year graduation rate accounts for 8.33 percent of the social mobility score, and the difference between the predicted versus the actual graduation rate counts for another 8.33 percent. The raw number of Pell recipients earning bachelor’s degrees counts for 5.56 percent of the social mobility score. This is designed to reward colleges that successfully serve large numbers of students from lower-income families. 

To gauge a college’s commitment to educating a diverse group of students, Washington Monthly measured the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants and the percentage of first-generation students at each school. It also measured affordability for first-time, full-time, in-state students with family incomes below $75,000 per year, student loan repayments, median earnings of graduates and dropouts, 

Washington Monthly also determines a community service score that takes into account the size of each college’s Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs as well as the number of alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps. 

Finally, Washington Monthly measures voting engagement using data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Colleges can earn up to six points for fulfilling each of six criteria. They could receive up to two points for publishing with ALL IN their data from NSLVE’s report on student voting behavior in 2016 or 2018 (one point for each year). 

They could receive up to two points for creating an action plan to improve democratic engagement through the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge in 2018 or 2020 (one point for each year). A college could earn one point for having a student voter registration rate above 85 percent and making their registration rate available through ALL IN. Colleges could also earn one point for being currently enrolled in NSLVE.

Good grief!

There may be nuggets of valuable information about colleges and universities within the ranking programs. But in slicing and dicing academia into sellable tiers, the ranking sites are principally the marketing branch of the higher education conglomerate, a way to assemble and peddle the publishers themselves and the schools they cover.

So don’t decide between the UO and OSU on the basis of their rankings on any of the programs out there. Be open minded. Be flexible. Be excited.

As Steve Jobs said, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” 

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