practical matters

Want to make money when you graduate? This new college ranking system is for you

Getty Images/Imeh Akpanudosen

A new college rating system aims to answer a very simple question that many traditional rankings don’t even ponder: Will this school prepare a student for a high-paying career?

Researchers at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday unveiled a report that compares how much graduates earn using what they’re calling a “value-added approach.”

Basically, the authors factored the characteristics of students when they were admitted–things like academic preparation, race and ethnicity, and family income–and the type of college–community college or four-year university–into their analysis of how much graduates earned. Schools whose graduates actually earn more than predicted rank highly. So a school that simply takes already high-performing students and spits them out four years later doesn’t do as well as a school that takes struggling students and catapults them into high-paying careers after graduation.

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The report’s “top 20” list looks a little different than the standard U.S. News & World list.

“We see a lot of schools in the top 20 that aren’t necessarily household names,” said Siddharth Kulkarni, a senior research assistant at Brookings and one of the report’s two authors.

Ever hear of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana? Turns out it’s “cranking out a ton of engineering grads who are getting well-paying careers,” Kulkarni said.

Predictably, he’s received some pushback.

The idea of using graduate earnings doesn’t sit well with some advocates of a traditional liberal arts education, who argue that higher education should be about the development of students more than how much the market thinks they’re worth after graduation. But as student debt and college tuition rise, more students are focusing, reasonably, on the money.

“More popular ranking systems can be very biased based on student selectivity,” Kulkarni said.

He and Jonathan Rothwell, the other author, cared about whether a school was able to help a graduate overcome any obstacles his or her background might present.

The pair also attempted to take on something the Obama administration has been grappling with as it develops its own rating system: how to compare graduates of similar institutions to each other. They separated two-year and four-year schools, where traditional rankings do not typically control for institution type. Some conventional rankings do not rate two-year institutions at all, which can leave students guessing about the benefits they might reap by attending.

Colleges and universities that graduate students with in-demand skills–often in science and engineering–rank highly. Predictably, so do schools with high graduation rates and loan repayment rates. But schools with strong engineering programs don’t automatically come out on top. Colgate University, a liberal arts college in New York, ranks highly, according to Brookings. That may have to do with robust alumni networks, among other things.

While the Brookings analysis certainly has limitations–the analysis considers data from LinkedIn, for example, which is not necessarily scientific–the researchers want to provide people with information about good colleges that existing rankings simply ignore.

Explore the ranking system here.

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