One of the annual things universities do when they submit their information to the Department of Education is to list peer institutions. This allows colleges to receive information about how other schools compare in terms of finances and enrollment.

One might think that “peer” means institutions that are similar in terms of size, structure, mission, and affiliation. But peer is undefined and colleges are pretty free to choose their peers from any schools.

It turns out the Ivy League schools are pretty popular peers.

According to an article by Andrea Fuller in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The eight Ivy League colleges among them chose only 12 institutions outside their own number as peers—not surprisingly, often including the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University.

But 55 colleges outside of the Ivy League selected at least one member of that group for comparison. Some of those colleges, such as Tufts University and New York University, are rich private research institutions.

Now, of course, NYU isn’t really a peer of Princeton or Penn. It’s more a peer of George Washington or Boston University. In the grand scheme of things, however, they’re not ridiculous comparison points. Some colleges go pretty far out to find peer schools, however. Fuller:

Other colleges selecting an Ivy League institution as part of its comparison group were bigger surprises: Alabama A&M University, which selected Dartmouth College, and Regent University, which selected Harvard University, Prince¬ton University, and Yale University.

Regent University is the interdenominational Christian university founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1978.

This is perhaps not quite as surprising as some other “peer” choices. The University of Phoenix’s campus in Jersey City, New Jersey, apparently decided that 74 other American colleges were “peer” institutions. Included were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia.

Administrators from the University of Delaware interviewed by Fuller explained that it choose its peer schools, which apparently included Brown, by considering “colleges it wants to be more like.”

“If you took a look at your actual peers,” Heather Ann Kelly, director of the Office of Institutional Research at Delaware, explained to Fuller, “the likelihood is that you stand up pretty well with them. In order to make progress, you want to be shedding light on not just your strengths, but also your weaknesses.”

But see, Brown is a private college that costs $53,136 a year, has no defined academic majors, and does not issue traditional grades. In what way does Delaware plan to become more like Brown?

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer