A Note on Methodology: 4-year Colleges and Universities

Our full college rankings can be found here.

There are two primary goals to our methodology. First, we considered no single category to be more important than any other. Second, the final rankings needed to reflect excellence across the full breadth of our measures, rather than reward an exceptionally high focus on, say, research. Thus, all three main categories were weighted equally when calculating the final score. In order to ensure that each measurement contributed equally to a college’s score within any given category, we standardized each data element so that each had a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one. The data was also adjusted to account for statistical outliers. No college’s performance in any single area was allowed to exceed five standard deviations from the mean of the data set. All measures use an average of the three most recent years of data in an effort to get a better picture of a college’s performance rather than statistical noise. Thanks to rounding, some colleges have the same overall score. We have ranked them according to their pre-rounding results.

To establish the set of colleges included in the rankings, we started with the 1,863 colleges in the fifty states that are listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and have a 2015 Carnegie basic classification of research, master’s, baccalaureate, and baccalaureate/associate’s colleges, are not exclusively graduate colleges, participate in federal financial aid programs, and plan to be open in fall 2016. As the Carnegie classifications were updated this year for the first time in five years, some colleges switched categories or moved into or out of our sample. This represents the first major update to our ranking categories since 2011. We then excluded 356 baccalaureate and baccalaureate/associate’s-level colleges which reported that at least half of the undergraduate degrees awarded in 2012 were below the bachelor’s-degree level, as well as eighteen colleges with fewer than 100 undergraduate students in any year they were open between fall 2012 and fall 2014, and an additional seventy-eight colleges with fewer than fifty students in the federal graduation rate cohort (first-time, full-time students) between 2012 and 2014.

Next, we decided to exclude the five federal military academies (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, and Navy) because their unique missions make them difficult to evaluate using our methodology. Our rankings are based in part on the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and the percentage of students enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), whereas the service academies provide all students with free tuition (and thus no Pell Grants or student loans) and commission graduates as officers in the armed services (and thus not the ROTC program). This resulted in a final sample of 1,406 colleges and includes public, private nonprofit, and for-profit colleges. As a final precaution to weed out especially questionable colleges, we cross-checked every ranking with the Department of Education’s second-level Heightened Cash Monitoring List. Then we randomly selected five schools on each of the lists, checked their status on the less drastic first-level Heightened Cash Monitoring List for signs of instability, verified their accreditation, and searched through local and national news clips over the past year for signs of problems.

The social mobility portion of the rankings changed significantly this year in response to newly available data on student outcomes from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, with four of the eight factors contributing to the social mobility score coming from the Scorecard data. A college’s graduation rate (from the IPEDS) counted for 20 percent of the social mobility score, with half of that being determined by the reported graduation rate and the other half coming from comparing the reported graduation rate to a predicted graduation rate 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. We estimated this predicted graduation rate measure in a regression model separately for each classification using average data from the last three years, imputing for missing data when necessary. Colleges with graduation rates that are higher than the “average” college with similar stats score better than colleges that match or, worse, undershoot the mark. A few colleges had predicted graduation rates over 100 percent, which we then trimmed back to 100 percent.

We used IPEDS data for the percentage of a college’s students receiving Pell Grants and College Scorecard data on the percentage of first-generation students in order to get at colleges’ commitments to educating a diverse group of students. (Graduation rates for these groups of students aren’t available yet in federal data, but Pell graduation rates should be coming in a year or two.) We then estimated predicted percentages of Pell recipients and first-generation students based on regressions using admit rates and ACT/SAT scores. The gaps between actual and predicted percentages counted for 20 percent of a college’s score, with 13.33 percent for Pell performance and 6.67 percent for first-generation performance. We measured a college’s affordability by using data from IPEDS on the average net prices paid by first-time, full-time, in-state students with family incomes below $75,000 per year over the last three years. We focused on these income categories due to our interest in affordability for students from lower- to middle-income families. Net price counted for 20 percent of the social mobility score.

We have wanted to include more data on students’ economic outcomes for years, and now the College Scorecard provides us with that opportunity. The first metric we used compares the median earnings of a college’s former students (graduates and dropouts alike) ten years after initial enrollment to predicted earnings based on the variables used to predict graduation rates, as well as two other factors designed to take colleges’ missions and locations into account. We adjusted for a college’s mix of bachelor’s degrees awarded, using STEM, education, business, health, social science, and liberal arts as broad degree categories. We also adjusted for regional living costs using fair market rent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to account for the fact that $40,000 per year in the rural South goes much farther than $40,000 per year in the Washington metropolitan area. This metric is worth 20 percent of the social mobility score.

The other new metric is a student loan repayment rate, reflecting the percentage of students who paid down at least $1 in principal within five years of leaving college and entering repayment. We had previously used data on the percentage of students defaulting on their loans within three years of entering repayment, but the repayment rate is a far better measure of students’ economic circumstances. We use the raw repayment rate for 10 percent of the social mobility score and a regression-adjusted repayment rate (using the same predictors as the graduation rate metric) for another 10 percent.*

The research score for national universities is based on five measurements: the total amount of an institution’s research spending (from the Center for Measuring University Performance and the National Science Foundation); the number of science and engineering PhDs awarded by the university; the number of undergraduate alumni who have gone on to receive a PhD in any subject, relative to the size of the college; the number of faculty receiving prestigious awards, relative to the number of full-time faculty; and the number of faculty in the National Academies, relative to the number of full-time faculty. For national universities, we weighted each of these components equally to determine a college’s final score in the category. For liberal arts colleges, master’s universities, and baccalaureate colleges, which do not have extensive doctoral programs, science and engineering PhDs were excluded and we gave double weight to the number of alumni who go on to get PhDs. Faculty awards and National Academy membership were not included in the research score for these institutions because such data is available for only a relative handful of these colleges.

We determined the community service score by measuring each college’s performance in four equally weighted measures. We judged military service by collecting data on the size of each college’s Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs and dividing by the number of students. We similarly measured national service by dividing the number of alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps by total enrollment. The final two measures are based on data reported to the Corporation for National and Community Service by colleges and universities in their applications for the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. One measure is the percentage of federal work-study grant money spent on community service projects. The second measure is more complicated and includes the percent of students doing community service, the number of hours of community service per student, whether any staff were employed in community service, if any service courses were offered, or if the institution provides scholarships for community service. Colleges that did not submit applications in a given year had no data and were given zeros on these measures. (Our advice to those colleges: If you care about service, believe you do a good job of promoting it, and want the world to know, then fill out the application!)

*In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Education announced a coding error that affected loan repayment rates from the College Scorecard—a component of our rankings. Most colleges’ repayment rates dropped by about ten percentage points, but this did not materially affect individual colleges’ ranks. For accurate loan repayment data for a particular college, please visit the College Scorecard website.

Washington Monthly

Washington Monthly is on Twitter @washmonthly.