Name Brand-itis, and What Everyone Should Know About College Rankings


name_brand_itisI’ve started, stopped, and restarted writing this post because it’s not a straightforward one to write. It’s difficult because it is nearly impossible to find consistent data in meaningful categories that can help determine what schools are the “best.” There are also so many possible categories one can look at to determine “best” and if I try to address them all here, this article will be 20 pages long. Therefore, I will tackle a few categories below, and will address some other categories in future posts.

I think everyone would agree that there are certain elite schools that people tend to view with more awe and admiration than others. Many students (and their parents) yearn to gain admission to schools in the Ivy League and a handful of others, such as Stanford, MIT, and liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Swarthmore. But why?

One place many people turn to is the U.S. News and World Report for college rankings. For many, this is the final word on whether a school is good or not. Therefore, I think this insightful and rather scathing article by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, from The College Solution, is a must-read for everyone. I recommend her site in general, and her overall message is to not go into crazy debt sending kids to college when there are so many colleges out there where your kid can get a fantastic education and a good deal, if you’re willing to look outside of the “top 100 list” on U.S. News and World Report. In the article, she debunks the myth that there is any value in these college “rankings” at all because the methods used to rank schools are deeply flawed and often gamed. And college tuitions are often tightly linked to their number in the ranking–the higher the ranking, the more expensive the school. However, she writes, “One of the perverse aspects about the rankings is that turning out thoughtful, articulate young men and women, who can write cogently and think critically won’t budge a school’s ranking up even one spot. U.S. News doesn’t even attempt to measure the type of learning going on at schools.”

I will add that although I agree with most of what she says in her article, I disagree with her disdain for merit aid. Many schools offer need-blind admission and many offer a lot of need-based financial aid. I think it makes sense for institutions that exalt learning and the intellect to reward and lure some of the top applicants with merit aid. She herself suggests finding schools that award merit aid in another article, “Looking for Great College Bargains.”

So, if US News and World Report can’t tell us which schools are the best, where else should we turn?

The Best Professors?

I think most people would agree that a “top school” should have excellent professors. On that note, a friend of mine from college, Steve Runge, is part of an academic couple. Together, he and his wife have attended: Colby College (undergraduate); Syracuse University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Simmons College, (graduate); and they have been employed by: Syracuse University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison Area Technical College, St. Lawrence University, Grinnell College, Northeastern University, and Boston College (whew!). On top of that, they have colleagues working at nearly 100 other colleges and universities across the country with whom they have shared their experiences.

Steve says, “The quality of professors is high. Everywhere. Don’t even worry about mastery of material and teaching ability: that’s going to be the same at Ivy Leagues and B schools. (The job market is so tight that highly qualified people are cobbling together careers adjuncting at four schools.) If they’re depending primarily on part-time, contingent faculty, that means they’re cutting into bone. I’ve been an adjunct, and know we do good work, but a high percent of adjuncts and part-time faculty means a really fractured intellectual environment. (In other words, I had no time to be part of students’ lives outside of class).” He also made this very interesting point. “Do find out how many professors are full time/tenure-track, and how many are minorities or women, and how many minorities and women are in leadership roles. High percentages for both are a good indication about an administration still centered on teaching and doing it ethically. The job market is SO tight that if a school lags in hiring minorities and women, that’s a warning signal about something wrong with the culture.”

Fortunately, The Princeton Review’s The Best 382 Colleges*, contains two categories in each school listing called: “professors interesting” and “professors accessible.” They are both on a scale from 60-99, and are based on levels of surveyed students’ agreement or disagreement with the statements, “Your instructors are good teachers,” and “Your instructors are accessible outside the classroom.”

Here are sample responses to these categories from undergraduate students at the following schools:

Some Really Low Ratings:

  • Harvard: 65 and 62
  • California Institute of Technology: 68 and 69
  • University of California–Los Angeles: 67 and 63
  • University of Rhode Island: 68 and 68
  • University of Maryland–College Park: 66 and 62
  • University of Missouri: 68 and 68

Low to Medium Ratings:

  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: 71 and 73
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 76 and 78
  • University of Virginia: 76 and 79
  • Texas A&M: 73 and 71
  • Columbia: 75 and 72
  • Rensselaer: 69 and 81
  • Princeton: 81 and 73
  • Carnegie Mellon: 79 and 83
  • Syracuse University: 74 and 71

Higher Ratings

  • Stanford: 81 and 83
  • Yale: 86 and 83
  • Amherst: 89 and 86
  • Allegheny College: 90 ad 86
  • University of Chicago: 82 and 81

High Ratings

  • Brown University: 92 and 88
  • DePauw University: 89 and 94
  • Swarthmore: 98 and 93
  • Bryn Mawr: 96 and 92
  • William and Mary: 94 and 95
  • Dickinson: 90 and 92
  • College of Wooster: 96 and 98
  • Whitman: 95 and 99

I picked the schools above at random, and you can do this same exercise if you have the book. Based on the above ratings by their own students, DePauw University and College of Wooster are much better schools than Harvard and Princeton, if you value how good the professors are and how accessible they are  to students. Interestingly, classes at Harvard are known for not just being taught by teachers assistants, but by fellow undergraduates (see this article in the Harvard Political Review).

Niche is another good source to see how professors at various schools are rated by their own students. When I mentioned that figuring out “best” in any category is not a straightforward process, there are frustrating contradictions between the Princeton and Niche findings. For example, University of Rochester’s ratings in The Princeton Review’s categories are 73 and 71 respectively (low). However, Niche’s comprehensive professor ranking system shows wildly different results. In “2018 Colleges with the Best Professors in America”, University of Rochester ranks at #28. And California Institute of Technology, with very low scores in the Princeton Guide, earns #7 on the list! I will say, the Niche list looks suspiciously like the US News and World Report list of college rankings. Despite that similarity, Niche’s rankings are “based on key statistics and student reviews using data from the U.S. Department of Education. Top-ranked colleges have diverse, accomplished, and well paid faculty members that are highly rated by students.” You can see their methodology here, which does look truly comprehensive.

Now that figuring out what schools have the best professors has left us confused, let us consider some other factors.

How About Starting Salaries and Mid-Career Earnings?

Yet another area that is not 100% straightforward, because I don’t think there has really been a good, comprehensive study on this topic. Many people will refer to a study published in 1999 by the researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale referred to in this article, Who Needs Harvard, by Gregg Easterbrook. The study found that students who attended more elite schools did indeed earn more than students who attended lesser-known schools, but Easterbrook wrote that “Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, ‘moderately selective’ school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income ‘varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.’ In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.”

A more recent version of this study that apparently used more and better data was conducted by the same researchers and written about in this article, Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges, by David Leonhardt. The results are similar but they also focus on SAT scores and the correlation between SAT scores and future earnings, regardless of where the student chooses to attend college, “A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to [U] Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to [U] Penn.” One big problem with both the old and more recent study are that even the less elite colleges used to collect the data are still pretty selective (you can see the list of colleges at the end of this article). It really doesn’t tell us anything about the future success of students who attend lower-tiered schools.

Another Atlantic Monthly article, Does Going to a Selective College Matter?, by Gillian White, uses data collected from a study by Eric Eide and Mark Showalter of Brigham Young University and Michael Hilmer of San Diego State University. These results are slightly different from the studies cited above. The results show that for most majors, attending a top tier or mid-tier school makes little difference in future earnings for most majors, such as those in engineering or the sciences. However, it did seem to matter for business majors, perhaps due to the networking opportunities that come with a prestigious school. For social science and education majors there was also an earning boost that came from attending a better-ranked school.

Also mentioned in this article, those that went on to attend graduate school (no matter what tier of undergraduate school they attended) enjoyed higher later career earnings. That would be a good argument for not worrying too much about where your child attends school to earn a bachelor’s degree, and also trying to avoid too much debt. Save the money for graduate school. Lynn O’Shaughnessy has a good article on this topic, “Don’t Pay $280,000 for a bachelor’s degree.”

If you are curious about earnings for a particular major at a particular school, you can go to to compare. I don’t know how they collect their data though.

One critical last point on the subject is mentioned by Leonhardt in Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges, “a few major groups did not fit the pattern: black students, Latino students, low-income students and students whose parents did not graduate from college. ‘For them, attending a more selective school increased earnings significantly,’ Mr. Krueger wrote. Why? ‘Perhaps they benefit from professional connections they would not otherwise have. Perhaps they acquire habits or skills that middle-class and affluent students have already acquired in high school or at home.’”

Since one way to boost future earnings seems to be attending graduate school, it might be worth figuring out which schools send the highest percentage of graduates on for further study.

Colleges That Send the Most Graduates on to Graduate School?

There are various lists and resources where you can find the colleges or universities that send the most students on to graduate school and/or to receive their PhDs. You have to be careful as the most important number is the percentage of students that go on to graduate school rather than total number, as 100 kids going to to grad school from a class of 500 is very different than 200 kids going to grad school from a class of 5,000.

The following resources use different criteria such as how many go to graduate school within one year vs. eventually, or in various disciplines:

Within one year: 10 Colleges That Often Lead to Graduate School: At these schools, an average of 74.6 percent of 2015 grads pursued an advanced degree within a year, U.S. News data show.

Colleges with highest percentages of kids going on to graduate studies by discipline: The Colleges Where PhD’s Get Their Start

Top Producers of Science PhDs: Top 50 Schools That Produce Science PhDs

Top Producers of History PhDs: Privileging History: Trends in the Undergraduate Origins of History PhDs (In this article, scroll down to second list which has proportion, not overall number, of students going on to earn PhDs.)

Overall most students going on to earn PhDs. 50-50 HIGHLIGHTS: COLLEGES PRODUCING THE MOST PHD DEGREE RECIPIENTS (This list doesn’t look like the others, so I’m confused).

Once again, it’s not crystal clear that name-brands schools offer a strong advantage if you want to attend graduate school one day. Although it’s true that many of the elite name-brand schools show up on (and top) the lists, there are many schools that continue to show up that don’t have the same name recognition, such as Kalamazoo, Knox, Wabash, Grinnell, and Lawrence University, among others. However, many schools don’t appear on these lists. I haven’t found any resources showing where students end up getting their graduate degrees. I can’t figure out whether applicants from Kalamazoo and Princeton with the same grades have the same chance of entering a top-notch PhD program. It does seem that although a school may not have name recognition “on the street,” there are many schools that are well-respected within academia and their students are readily accepted into graduate programs.

Another thing to consider…

Where Did Fortune 500 CEOs Go to School?

Many people may assume that they’re all Ivy League graduates, but CEOs of Fortune 500 companies come from all types of schools,  “Overall, the Fortune 500 crew attended 220 different colleges for their undergraduate degrees,” see Top Ten Colleges of Fortune 500 CEOs, there are schools that produce more CEOs than others. This Forbes article, The Universities that Produce the Most CEO’s stresses that where the undergraduate was earned does matter. Interestingly, they are not all Ivy League or similar schools: Penn State and University of Miami in Ohio are among the top 10 producers of top CEOs. Here is another list (of a variety of schools) where top CEOs earned their undergraduate degrees: America’s Top CEOs and their College Degrees.

So, this is a category where ivy league schools don’t necessarily provide an advantage (or even an advanage at all).

In Summary

It’s time to wrap this up, even though there are plenty of other categories that can be explored in the quest for “best” school. I think that if a student values great professors, high potential future earnings, potential acceptance into a graduate program, and even the chance to be a CEO of a company one day, there are many schools outside of the prestigious “name-brand” list that will provide these opportunities. It seems pretty clear that it is the intelligence, drive, motivation (and apparently test scores) of the student that will determine future success, rather than where she ultimately chooses to go to school. That’s not to say all schools are created equally, so it makes sense to find the schools that provide certain opportunities (such as high graduate school placement rates), and these schools won’t all be name-brand. The good news is, there are choices! And they’re not all impossible to get in to or completely unaffordable.

The group of people that does seem to get the biggest boost from name brand schools are students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And this group faces another hurdle: These four charts show how the SAT favors rich, educated families. If these students can overcome that hurdle, they are in luck. The name-brand schools tend to be very generous with need-based aid.

For an alternate look at college rankings: Money Magazine has its own ranking using its own methodology: 2,400 colleges + 27 data points = 711 Best Colleges For Your Money

A final word from Steve, “The key is that no matter where your kid goes to college, he’ll learn a ton and be prepared for career and life, because that’s exactly what all colleges specialize in and really do work hard at. Whit (Steve’s wife) and I have worked both at top flight and b-schools, small liberal arts colleges and big urban universities. 95% of students at all of these places were happy, productive, and doing amazing things.”

*Data available in Princeton Guide: Franek, Robert; O’Toole, Karen; Soto, David. 2017. The Princeton Review: The Best 382 Colleges. New York: Penguin Randomhouse, LLC.


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