A Note on Methodology: 4-year Colleges and Universities

To establish the set of colleges included in the rankings, we started with the 1,860 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 2017. We then excluded 356 baccalaureate and baccalaureate/associate’s-level colleges that reported that at least half of the undergraduate degrees awarded in 2012 were below the bachelor’s-degree level, as well as twenty colleges with fewer than 100 undergraduate students in any year they were open between fall 2013 and fall 2015, and an additional seventy-eight colleges with fewer than seventy-five students in the federal graduation rate cohort (first-time, full-time students) between 2013 and 2015.

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 1,404 colleges and includes public, private nonprofit, and for-profit colleges.

Our rankings consist of three equally weighted portions: social mobility, research, and community and national service. This means that top-ranked colleges needed to be excellent across the full breadth of our measures, rather than excelling in just one measure. 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 (unless noted). 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.

The social mobility portion of the ranking also doubles as our Best Bang for the Buck rankings (see page 48), with the exception that the main rankings are by Carnegie classification while the Best Bang for the Buck rankings are by region (while predicted rates are calculated by Carnegie classification and standardized by region). A college’s graduation rate (from 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 to get at colleges’ commitments to educating a diverse group of students. These percentages counted for 10 percent of the social mobility score, with 6.67 percent for percent Pell and 3.33 percent for percent first-generation students. (Graduation rates for these groups of students aren’t available yet in federal data, but Pell graduation rates should be coming in time for the 2018 rankings.) 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 10 percent of a college’s score, with 6.67 percent for Pell performance and 3.33 percent for first-generation performance. We measured a college’s affordability using data from IPEDS for 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 because of our interest in affordability for students from lower- to middle-income families. Net price counted for 20 percent of the social mobility score.

The first metric of financial success 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 further than $40,000 per year in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. This metric is worth 20 percent of the social mobility score.

The other financial success 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. In general, repayment rates went down substantially from what we reported last year—which were inflated by a coding error from the Department of Education. (Memo to the feds: Share your code with researchers to prevent this from happening again!) 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 different 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. We used the percentage of federal work-study grant money spent on community service projects as a measure of how much colleges prioritize community service; this is 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. Each of these three measures was standardized using a three-year rolling average.

We then added an indicator for whether a college provided at least some matching funds for undergraduate students who had received a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award for having completed national service. Colleges that awarded at least some grants to students regardless of programs received two points, colleges that limited grants to specific undergraduate programs received one point, and colleges that did not participate or limited awards to graduate students only received no points.

As a final precaution to highlight especially questionable colleges, we used the Department of Education’s list of colleges on the most serious level of heightened cash monitoring for significant financial or operating concerns. These colleges are specified with a “^” next to their names.

The Editors

The Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.