A common criticism of college rankings is this: the U.S. News & World Report’s list of “best colleges” doesn’t mean anything. Literally nothing. We don’t know what exactly is factored in, or how much each factor is weighted, or why so many people can recite their school’s rank without looking at the list. Despite what you may have been told, your goal when you choose a college is not to minimize the number displayed next to it. (Fight me, U.S. News & World Report.)
In response to this criticism, The Economist released its own ranking system, based on a single factor: how much more money do alumni make ten years after graduation than they would have made elsewhere?
Go ahead, take a look at your college/your prospective colleges. I’ll wait.
Done? (Yes, Yale is tied for last, and it’s tied for last with my school, University of Rochester, among others. Ouch.) Whether or not you agree, or you think the data is wrong, or you think it doesn’t consider X or Y (a lot of students might be in grad school ten years after college, for example), that’s not our concern, primarily because I don’t know economics. My question is this: Is this a valid measure of the worth of a college?
As always, it depends.
If all you want out of college is, y’know, more money, then it makes sense to look at this list and to consider the amount that it adds to your post-graduation salary as reflective of its worth. If you’re already in college and the “value-added” is negative, you can transfer somewhere else. If you’re not already in college, you can use this list to compare your schools. You can use it to justify loans. For example: If the school is “worth” an additional $1,000/year ten years after college, and you’re planning to borrow some amount in loans at 4.29% interest, then math says you probably shouldn’t borrow more than $657 + (whatever you would have borrowed for any other school) every year. You can make a lot of decisions based on this list.
But I’m going to caution you away from that.
If there is a goal of college, it certainly isn’t connected to rank–but I’m not sure that it’s connected to the money you make after college, either. How much your post-graduation life is “worth” isn’t always reflected by your salary alone. How rewarding is your job? Is it on the path to something greater? What does it allow you to do in your spare time? All of this and more are necessary to tell you the quality of your life after college.
Even that shouldn’t be a true reflection of the “worth” of a college. Using a cliché to support an argument is repulsive, but it fits: It’s not the destination but the journey.
Why should the (marginal) value of a college be equivalent to the amount of money it adds to your salary ten years later? It’s hard to quantify learning, but it certainly should factored in somehow. What about the opportunity to work with fantastic professors, or the close-knit community that you might not have found elsewhere? What about the city or town you call home for four years? What about the friendships you form, and the unique extracurriculars, and the passions you never would have discovered anywhere else?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating something as bendy and meaningless as the college rankings mentioned at the beginning. The Economist’s rankings are useful in that you know exactly what the numbers mean, and for some people, who attend college so that they can get a high-paying job, period, these rankings are a sufficient indication of worth.
For anyone else, who seeks anything else in a college, the “worth” involves a lot more than can be captured in a national ranking system. How much is a college worth? It depends on the college, yes, but most importantly, it depends on you.
P.S. If you’re extremely offended by The Economist‘s rankings and didn’t read this article at all, you might be happy to know that Brookings published a similar list–with different results–but using what appears to be the same criteria.