Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ranking the States in Higher Education

By Richard Vedder

Within the next month, US News & World Report and Forbes (in conjunction with CCAP) are going to release new rankings of America's colleges and universities. Besides the rankings of individual colleges, however, sometimes various organizations try to rank higher educations systems by state.

Most famous is the annual assessment of the Jim Hunt/Pat Callan organization, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The group is heavily interested in affordability and access. America's least appreciated researcher of higher education, our dear friend Dr. Harry Stille (Higher Education Research/Policy Center), has taken the NCPPHE data and assigned letter grades to each state on five different attributes --preparation, participation, affordability, completion and benefits. A sixth factor --student learning -- is not considered because of a lack of data.

I took Harry's numerical ranking and arbitrary curved everything around a "C" average, which I think, and I suspect Harry does as well, is generous given the current state of American higher education. The top ranked state, getting an "A", is Massachusetts, the lowest ranked state, getting an "F", is Nevada. Interestingly, Massachusetts is a state with a very LOW proportion of students attending public universities, and while it has a large number of highly ranked private schools (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, Boston College), its flagship public school, the University of Massachusetts, is usually considered to be in the second rank of public schools. By contrast, in bottom ranked Nevada, there are no significant private schools at all. It is interesting that in a grade system that includes affordability as a key component, the most private school intensive state in the Union excels.

Among major states, Harry's ranking based on the NCPPHE analysis would lead us to give Illinois a "B" and California a "B-", Pennsylvania a "C+", New York, Ohio and Michigan "C' grades, Florida a mediocre "C-" and Texas an even lower "D+."

Now, I am not sure about those grades. Indeed, some work we are doing would rank several states higher (e.g., Virginia and Florida) and others perhaps lower (Illinois) than what these results show. But the point is evaluating state higher education performance is a worthwhile thing to do. And the second point is that a very key ingredient in such evaluation --student learning -- is missing because of the unwillingness of schools to compile and publish what their students have learned during four or five years (and $100,000 or $200,000 in spending) at the schoool.


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