‘Economist’ publishes college rankings

November 11, 2015 by Michael Green, News Editor

In the first-ever college rankings published by The Economist, the College ranked 457 out of 1275 four-year non-vocational institutions, in the 64th percentile.

Amherst had a ranking of 556, Yale had a ranking of 1270 and Princeton had a ranking of 770. Washington and Lee, Babson and Villanova topped the list, with Harvard coming in at fourth.

The list ranks colleges based on the economic value of attending, which The Economist calculated by the difference between how much students actually earn and how much students had the potential to earn had they studied elsewhere. The data on actual student earnings came from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard. The Economist then calculated the potential earnings of students at a college based on a regression of its attributes, including average SAT scores, sex ratio, local wages and religious affiliation of the school.

The advantage to this type of ranking is that by calculating expected earnings, the system controls for the type of students that attend each college, so that it only measures the benefit of attending a particular college. According to The Economist, graduates of elite colleges have high earnings in part because these students were already equipped to become wealthy, not solely because their colleges helped them. This causes typical college rankings to overstate the value of elite colleges.

Students 10 years after entering the College had median earnings of $58,100, in comparison to expected earnings of $57,014, over- performing by $1,086. The Economist derived the College’s expected earnings from a $42,751 median income for an average college, plus increases from the regression. The three main factors that increased the College’s expected earnings above the median income were the College’s high SAT scores, sex ratio and racial diversity.

There are a number of caveats to the data. The scorecard data only lists students who applied for federal financial aid and only tracks students for 10 years, which both limit the scope of the actual earnings data. Additionally, there may be variables that affect earnings not included in the regression for potential earnings and the importance of each variable may differ for different colleges. However, the model did explain 85 percent of variation in salaries between colleges.

“My general feeling about all college rankings is that they are misleading at best,” said Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions, “implying that there is some way to use data to precisely measure the value of a college and the education it provides to its students. The college search process should be about fit and not about some arbitrary ranking.”

The Economist emphasized that these rankings were only for economic purposes, and that there are other reasons for attending college.

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