Rankings appear to mean a lot to the presidents of some schools; high rankings can convince trustees to increase their investments in facilities and scholarships to build up the school’s reputation. A boost from 75th to 50th means more to an up-and-coming national university than it does for a school that has a long-cemented, international reputation. These ambitions are not necessarily bad; a nation can never have enough quality schools.
I did my own ''kitchen table exercise'' with the most recent U.S. News college guide after sifting through the published rankings. I set my own standard of excellence, based on the reported graduation and student retention rates. My thought was that the best schools are the ones that do the best to attract, retain, and graduate their entering classes.
Graduation and retention rates are not perfect, but they’re the results by which admissions and student services are best measured. An excellent school has rigorous academics, but does all it can to help their students succeed; it serves no one to make college an intense ''boot camp'' experience to whittle a class down to an elite few. High retention and graduation rates are more likely to help attract alumni support and interest from graduate schools and employers than poor ones.
I set my bar high: an 85% freshman retention rate and a 65% six-year graduation rate. I dislike the idea of using a six-year graduation rate, but there are legitimate reasons: leaves of absence, military or missionary service, cooperative educational opportunities (combine school and work) and interest in multiple degree programs being examples.
In my kitchen table exercise, I found that 265 four-year schools met my standard. Among the nation’s 262 large public and private universities — 104 schools met or exceeded the 85-65 standard, including all of the top 72 in the rankings. Among 266 national liberal arts colleges, 105 met or exceeded both numbers. There were also 37 regional universities and eight baccalaureate colleges that met or bested both marks, as well as 11 specialty (fine arts, performing arts, engineering, and business) schools.
By my standard, the list of ''excellent'' schools is larger than some parents might think. It does include the most selective public and private institutions, but also 84 schools that admitted more than 65% of their applicant pool for this year’s entering class. But there is another side to this analysis: the verbal and math SATs. The higher the school ranked in U.S. News, the higher the range of the scores. A combined 1,050 to 1,100 on the verbal and math SATs put most applicants near the bottom quarter of the pool in most of my excellent schools. Excellent grades might offset the test scores at all except the best of the best, but it’s best to prepare for the tests.
What could I conclude from this?
The best of the best schools deserve the accolades they receive, but there are other schools equally deserving of the same attention. Ask me to name names. Some might surprise you.
Are these the only numbers a family should consider?
They’re a start. If financial concerns are paramount, then ask about the average tuition increases and student loan indebtedness for the recent graduating classes. Also ask about the school’s bond rating; it reflects the school’s ability to earn income and cover its costs, while keeping tuition increases as low as possible. Both of these measures are important, because scholarships and grants do not always increase as tuition increases; you might have to make up the difference.
There are plenty of choices among excellent schools, but only you and your financial advisors can determine your ability to pay for college. It might surprise you to find out which school is your best value.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy, and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, www.educatedquest.com.