By Richard Vedder
The most exciting dimension of this year's Forbes/CCAP rankings of colleges is a revolutionary new concept --the do it yourself ranking, available here. You first determine the region where you want to go to school, and the size of the institution. After that, you indicate which of 12 factors you think are important --and how important. Those factors include admissions selectivity, average freshman SAT scores, the student-faculty ratio, the four year graduation rate, crime rates on campus, student evaluations of their instruction (and instructors), incidence of listing in Who's Who in America, average post-graduate salary data, whether students or faculty won nationally competitive awards, average student debt loads, and net tuition costs. Then the screener gives you the top 20 schools, given your tastes and preferences.
Human differences in tastes lead to HUGE difference in the top schools for individuals. Let us take a rich kid who is only interested about getting out of college on time, getting fame (listing in Who's Who in America) and fortune (big salary). He is not worried about college debts or tuition levels, and could care less about the quality of instruction, campus crime rates, where the school is located or its size. What are the best schools for him? The standard prestigious private schools --Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, M.I.T., Stanford, Duke, Cal Tech, Haverford College, and Columbia. But suppose the student is also interested in fame and money, but is poor, and thus is also interested in tuition costs and minimizing college debt. The top 10 list alters a good bit: Naval Academy, Cal Tech, West Point, Coast Guard Academy, Princeton, Williams, Harvard, Merchant Marine Academy (!) , Columbia, and Rice. Gone are Dartmouth, M.I.T., Stanford, Duke and Haverford.
Suppose the student lives in the Midwest, doesn't want to go too far away from home, and is fearful of going to a large school, with over 10,000 undergraduates. Suppose also of special importance is graduating on time, with little debt, and paying low tuition fees (the students ranks other considerations of moderate importance). Top schools: Hillsdale College, Northwestern U., Washington U. in St. Louis, Kenyon College, U. of Chicago, Lawrence U., Macalester College, Carleton College, Wheaton College, and the U. of Notre Dame. Alternatively, suppose the student wants to go to a bigger university (over 10,000 undergraduates), anywhere in the country but the East, but also with the same high interest in minimizing tuition costs and debt, and graduating on time, and going to a school with low crime rates. The screener gives her lots of state universities -- North Carolina, Flordia, George, Virginia, Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, Cal Poly, the University of Michigan, University of California at San Diego, and one private school, Brigham Young.
The point here is that the notion that West Point and Princeton are America's top schools is fine if you share the rather mainstream and reasonable perspective used by CCAP and Forbes, but those schools may be inappropriate for persons with specific tastes. For some kids, Hillsdale College is a "better" school than Princeton or West Point.
University president who decry rankings do so mostly for illegitimate reasons --they don't like the competition or the notion that they are somehow inferior to other schools, etc. They don't like the limelight, the transparency, etc. All bad. But they are right in suggesting that the rankings that are published may misguide some persons, individuals whose tastes and preferences are not in accord with the rankers'. I consider customized, do it yourself rankings to be the real innovation in this year's Forbes listings, and am proud to have helped make it happen.