A Note on Methodology: 4-Year Colleges and Universities

To establish the set of colleges included in the rankings, we started with colleges in the 50 states that are listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Then, we winnowed that list to include only the schools that have a 2018 Carnegie basic classification of doctoral, master’s, and baccalaureate colleges; that are not exclusively graduate colleges; that participate in federal financial aid programs; and that had not announced a fall 2020 closure as of July 1, 2020. That left us with 1,558 institutions. We then excluded 25 colleges with fewer than 100 undergraduate students in any year they were open between fall 2016 and fall 2018 and an additional four colleges with fewer than 25 students in the federal graduation rate cohort in 2017 and 2018. 

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). Finally, we dropped an additional 55 colleges for not having data on at least one of our key social mobility outcomes (percent Pell, graduation rate, net price, or the number of Pell recipients earning bachelor’s degrees). This resulted in a final sample of 1,469 colleges and includes public, private nonprofit, and for-profit institutions. 

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. 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 it had a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one (unless noted). Missing social mobility data (affecting less than 1 percent of all observations) were imputed and noted with “N/A” in the rankings tables. We adjusted data to account for statistical outliers by allowing no college’s performance in any single area to exceed five standard deviations from the mean of the data set. All measures (unless noted) 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. 

The social mobility portion of the national rankings also doubles as our Best Bang for the Buck rankings, with the exception that the main rankings are grouped by Carnegie classification while the Best Bang for the Buck rankings are grouped by region (while predicted rates are calculated by Carnegie classification). We again used a college’s graduation rate over eight years for all students instead of the first-time, full-time graduation rate that is typically used but which presents an incomplete picture of a college’s success. We also created a predicted graduation rate, based on student demographics, so we could compare the school’s graduation rate performance relative to schools with similar student bodies. The predicted graduation rate measure was 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 past 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.

The social mobility score takes these two metrics into account. 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. We used IPEDS data comparing graduation rates of Pell and non-Pell students to develop a Pell graduation gap measure. Colleges that had higher Pell than non-Pell graduation rates received a positive score on this measure, which was based on just the one year of available data and counted for 16.66 percent of a college’s score. We also included the raw number of Pell recipients earning bachelor’s degrees, which is designed to reward colleges that successfully serve large numbers of students from lower-income families. This measure, from IPEDS, counts for 5.56 percent of the social mobility score. 

To gauge a college’s commitment to educating a diverse group of students, we used IPEDS data to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school. Our measure compared actual shares of Pell and first-generation students to the predicted share after controlling for ACT/SAT scores and the share of families in a state with incomes below $35,000 and between $35,001 and $75,000 per year. The Pell enrollment performance measure counted for 5.56 percent of the social mobility score, while the first-generation enrollment performance measure counted for 2.77 percent. We also allocated another 2.77 percent to the unadjusted share of first-generation students.

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 past 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 16.66 percent of the social mobility score.

We also created metrics to measure whether colleges are setting students up for decently paying jobs. Our first metric of students’ financial success compares the median earnings of a college’s former students (graduates and dropouts alike) 10 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 adjusted earnings metric is worth 16.66 percent of the social mobility score. The other financial success metric is the 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 use the raw repayment rate for 8.33 percent of the social mobility score and a regression-adjusted repayment rate (using the same predictors as the graduation rate metric) for another 8.33 percent.

The research score for national universities is based on five measurements (from the Center for Measuring University Performance and the National Science Foundation): the total amount of an institution’s research spending; 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 five components equally to determine a college’s final score in the category. For liberal arts colleges, master’s universities, and bachelor’s colleges, which do not have extensive doctoral programs, science and engineering PhDs were excluded and we gave double weight to the proportion of alumni who go on to get PhDs. Faculty awards and National Academies 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 on five 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 provided by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Each of these three measures was standardized using a three-year rolling average, except for work study (in which we used the two most recent years of data available). 

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 area of study received two points, colleges that limited grants to specific undergraduate programs received one point, and colleges that did not participate or limited awards to only graduate students received no points.

Finally, we used a measure of voting engagement using data from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Colleges could 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 the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) 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.

We compared our rankings to the U.S. Department of Education’s list of colleges subject to the most severe level of heightened cash monitoring, which indicates that a college is facing significant financial problems or has other serious issues that need to be addressed. Four colleges—Bacone College in Oklahoma, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma, and Wiley College in Texas—were on that list as of March 2020. We kept these colleges in our rankings, but denoted them with ^ to draw this concern to readers’ attention. Finally, we checked the colleges that topped our lists as well as a random sample of lower-ranking schools to see if they had any serious issues that had been exposed in recent news coverage. No institution had concerns that rose to the level of us removing them from our rankings. —Eds.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled