Forbes Ranks The Corporate College
Forbes’ annual list of “America’s Top Colleges” is out, and with it comes the yearly debate over the significance, bias, and purpose of college rankings.
While many institutions dismiss college rankings as subjective and discourage prospective students from considering them too heavily, lists like Forbes’ are a regular feature of the college search landscape. Though not officially endorsed by institutions of higher education, rankings do factor in a college’s reputation and public image.
Here’s how the ‘Cac stacks up this year:
2. Williams College
13. Amherst College
14. Bowdoin College
21. Wesleyan University
25. Colby College
32. Tufts University
42. Middlebury College
64. Hamilton College
70. Connecticut College
76. Bates College
89. Trinity College
In order to understand college rankings, it’s important to examine methodology. Forbes’ approach is consistent with its brand, attempting to measure institutions of higher education as businesses. Considering students as investments, Forbes works with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) to measure five categories to assess what the return on such an investment might be.
- Student Satisfaction
- Post-Graduate Success
- Student Debt
- Four-year Graduation Rate
- Academic Success
The full methodology report is available here.
The categories sound routine – the sort of thing rattled off in an info-session or college fair – but their respective breakdowns reveal weaknesses in the study’s methodology.
For example, 17.5% of the assessment relies on student evaluations from RateMyProfessor.com. Though some studies have shown a positive correlation between RateMyProfessor (RMP) and institutions’ internal student evaluations of teaching (SET), as a student I have to doubt the value of using such a site as a quantitative measure of teaching quality. Though I have filled out more Amherst course evaluations than I can count, I have never reviewed any professor on RMP. This isn’t to say that no one is using the site, nor is it to argue that the reviews on RMP are inaccurate. Rather, I think it’s important to think about who uses RMP and how they fit into the larger picture of college students.
Another “woolly” factor in Forbes’ methodology is the use of Who’s Who in America, a compilation of influential people and prominent members of society, as a measure of Post-Grad Success. Again, we must question who is being excluded from Forbes’ measuring tools.
Similarly, salaries of alumni as measured by PayScale.com accounts for 15% of Forbes’ rankings. The CCAF methodology explains:
The “PayScale Salary Survey,” which is updated frequently, is one of the largest online salary surveys in the world. Persons complete the “PayScale Salary Survey” in exchange for a free salary report that anonymously compares them to other people with similar jobs in similar locations. In addition to individual surveys, PayScale receives data from employers administered on behalf of trade associations.
Yet again, we must question if the respondents of the “PayScale Salary Survey” adequately and fairly represent each college that Forbes evaluates for its annual list. Increasing numbers of graduates, especially from small liberal arts colleges, are going into teaching and non-profit work, neither of which is especially lucrative.
Editor Michael Noer comments that, “We try to look at colleges as a consumer might look at them,” examining, “things that matter if you’re going to be spending that kind of money.”
“That kind of money,” is significant, up to $250,000 for four years. Given that figure, Forbes approach to rankings seems justified, eschewing factors like selectivity or reputation in favor of diluting education to a mutually beneficial relationship between consumer and producer.
As a liberal arts student, even using those terms to describe education rubs me the wrong way. If liberal arts education had a motto, it would be “learning for learning’s sake.” The spirit of intellectual pursuit and the joy of learning remain at the heart of schools in the ‘Cac, and attempting to measure and rank something as intangible as education seems cold and suspect.
Traditionally, much of the pushback against Forbes’ rankings has come from skeptics, asking how an Ivy-League school can rank below “Insert small college name here.” I don’t write to complain about the rankings, but rather to think critically about them (another tagline of liberal arts). The ‘Cac obviously does well in Forbes’ rankings (Williams College was ranked #1 for 2010 and 2011), and Noer goes so far as to say that Forbes’ list “tends to reward small liberal arts schools.”
I write because I think that evaluating educational institutions first and foremost as businesses underlines a key problem in attitudes towards higher education. The CCAF report assesses that, “Other things being equal, students will choose a school that provides them the opportunity to earn the highest possible salary upon graduation.” This assumption is flawed. Though earning potential is a factor in many prospective students’ decisions, it’s merely that – a factor. To use the hypothetical, “other things being equal,” is only a hypothetical. Each college is different, even from its peers. Though the ‘Cac is sometimes lumped together into “New England, small, liberal arts colleges,” ask a Williams student if they think the Williams/Amherst divide can be reduced to one factor.
“Reading holistically” has become an in-vogue phrase to describe how some colleges assess student applications. It means that the admission committee does its best to consider the whole applicant, not just the numbers. I would encourage the readers of Forbes’ list and other college rankings to “read holistically” as well. Rankings are numbers that seeks to attach themselves to schools based on criteria chosen by a particular organization.
What number can you give to crisp autumn air, the smell of library books, the first spring day that brings pale students out of their rooms and onto the quad? A two? A seventy-six? What number embodies eating Chinese chicken wings with your professor and his wife, a Primal Scream during finals, or chatting with Campus Police on a Saturday night?
A college is in many ways immeasurable, and while I cannot fault Forbes for its ranking – it is likely very useful for the right audience – I cannot say that 2, 13, 14, 21, 25, 32, 42, 64, 70, 76, and 89 define the ‘Cac.
Forbes’ editor Michael Noer comments on the rankings: