Click here to read JS O'Brien's absolutely accurate and unimpeachable college rankings (the top 23)

by JS O’Brien

If US News holds true to form, it will publish its 2009 undergraduate college rankings in August 2008, just in time to drill its way into the heads of all those eager new high school seniors who have to decide where to apply for early decision before November 1, and for regular decision before January 1.Â

Not to mention what the rankings do for their parents’ bragging rights.

The US News rankings are controversial, especially among those colleges that aren’t highly ranked.  They complain that the magazine doesn’t measure what actually goes on in the classroom and the learning outcomes at various universities, and they’re right.  Of course, the schools themselves don’t know that stuff either.  No one knows that stuff.  I can’t even find a college that clearly defines exactly what skills and knowledge an undergrad should have before getting a degree, nor can I find one that tests to make sure their graduates have what the schools haven’t yet defined.

I think US News does a pretty decent job of measuring those things that tend to be proxies for the real measurement that doesn’t exist and which most faculty members I know resist to their last breaths.  Basically, the magazine measures:

  • What peer colleges think of other colleges on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being “distinguished” and 1 being “marginal.”  In other words, 3 is average, 4 is a step better than average, and 2 is below average.
  • The quality of the student body measured mostly by standardized tests scores and the percentage graduating at the tops of their high school classes
  • The amount of money a school spends on things that benefit students
  • Class size
  • How many alumni donate money to the school (as a proxy for customer satisfaction)
  • The quality of the faculty (full-time, PhDs, etc.)
  • How many students graduate vs. predicted graduation, and
  • Faculty resources

Quite a lot of the bickering over US News‘ rankings centers on whether the factors are appropriate and how they are weighted.  Note once again, if you will, that colleges aren’t offering an alternative and/or better numbers.  They’re just offering complaints.

To stop all the complaints and come up with the final and definitive college rankings, I’m publishing my first annual JS O’Brien undergraduate college rankings, right here.  My methodology is simple.  I’ve already gone on record about the mess a poor-quality student body can make of a college experience, so it seems clear to me that one ingredient in a good college education mix has to be the quality of the students.Â

That’s factor one.

Factor two comes from the fact that the best quality students in the world cannot influence a classroom of 750 kids seated in a huge auditorium to hear a lecture.  They might as well be watching the lecture on television.  So, the second factor in a superior college education is “class size,” with smaller being better.

Factor three is faculty quality which, of course, we have no data for because most college faculty members are quite convinced that everything in the world can be measured except their own job performances.  But that’s OK.  If you look closely at the US News peer rankings, they fall almost in lockstep with overall faculty reputation.  It’s not a perfect measure but, then, we’ve already established that such things don’t exist.

Putting it all together, it comes to a logical conclusion:  We don’t have real data on educational performance, so we’re going to assume that when you put great teachers in small classrooms with highly skilled kids, good things tend to happen.  That’s not to say that they always happen, but the odds are better than decent.

The following rankings work pretty simply.  I ranked every college from 1 to 40 on peer review score (as published in US News), classroom size, and standardized test scores.  For standardized test scores, I used the 25th percentile and broke ties by ranking the school with the higher 75th percentile higher.  For classroom size, I used the percentage of classrooms under 20 people, and broke ties with the percentage of classrooms of 50 or more.  If a school didn’t finish in the top 40 in all categories, it didn’t get ranked.  Why?Â

Because I say so.

The lower the score, the better.  The perfect score would be a 3, which would mean that school had the highest peer review score, the smallest classes, and the most able undergrads.  The highest possible score would be 120, meaning a school finished 40th in all three categories.

Only large, national universities are ranked, so if you’re applying this year, don’t count out Swarthmore, Reed, Vassar, Amherst, Pomona, and the like.

And away we go!

  1. Yale (9)
  2. CalTech (11)
  3. Princeton (17)
  4. Harvard * (19)
  5. Stanford * (19)
  6. Duke (28)
  7. Penn (30)
  8. Chicago (31)
  9. Columbia (32)
  10. Washington University (35)
  11. Northwestern (36)
  12. MIT (38)
  13. Brown (40)
  14. Dartmouth (48)
  15. Johns Hopkins (51)
  16. Carnegie Mellon (58)
  17. Emory (63)
  18. Cornell (66)
  19. Rice (67)
  20. Vanderbilt (68)
  21. Berkeley (77)
  22. USC (80)
  23. NYU (109)

So, there you have it.  The perfect rankings.

No need to thank me, but it would be appreciated.

* Ties are settled based on who has ever hired me and paid me consulting fees.  If both institutions have paid me consulting fees, ties are broken by which university was the least pain in the ass to work with.  If they were both terrible pains in the ass, ties are broken by the quality of brick construction on campus.

13 replies »

  1. Nice. Of course, there’s a college there I turned down who accepted me for my undergraduate studies, but as you said, the rankings aren’t perfect.


  2. Jeff:

    The data are what they are.

    So sue me.

    (Hey, my alma mater didn’t even make the list.)

  3. I think what it means is that one should interpret the rankings only in the context of the methodology.

    And the methodology is perfect.

  4. *harrump, harrump* *sputter, sputter*

    Egads, young man, how could you possibly quantify what is essentially a qualitative entity …

    Cheers, JS. Oh, was this satire?

  5. I have this continual argument, er, discussion, with the powers-that-be at my university. According to the Excel sheet I maintain, our cost — tuition, fees and room and board — has been rising just above 6 percent a year since 1996 when I arrived. (I keep the records because, as an exercise, I make my freshmen calculate what they’ll likely pay in their senior year. It’s a rather eye-opening experience for them.)

    The discussion centers around this point: We’ve just gone north of $33,000. Have we reached the point at which families say: “Great education, sure — but not at that price.”

    Of course, I missed the point, which a dean made to me. “As long as colleges we compete against for students keep raising their costs at the same rate as ours, we can keep raising our costs similarly.”

    The various publications rank us, too. I talk with many parents of prospective students — and deposited students — and ask, “Why us?” The answers I get really don’t touch on the factors that US News uses to determine its rankings.

    Is the campus clean? Neat? Are people friendly? Will my child get a job upon graduation? What’s the food like? Will my child get a dorm room or a room in an apartment suite? How experienced are the professors in my child’s intended major?

    No parents has ever asked me the percentage of graduates donating to the Alumni Fund. No one’s asked me the percent of faculty with PhDs.

    They do ask about class sizes. That’s important. They rarely ask about the academic rankings and median standardized test scores of our undergrads.

    Parents wonder mostly about value. They define it in many ways. A parent of a student I’m recruiting asked me last week, almost plaintively, “Will you take care of my kid?”

    Paternalism aside, ranking systems such as US News don’t seem to matter (even though the university touts itself when we get “good” rankings). It’s all about how these families, about to make an investment that may approach $200,000, view “value.”

    But hey, we’re not Yale, and we don’t want to be.

  6. People lie, Denny, even on surveys. And people can use numbers to lie if they want to, but the numbers themselves don’t lie.

    Many studies have found that respondents claim to pay little attention to college rankings when making a college choice. Having said that:

    1. The US News ranking issue is by far the most popular issue of the year. If no one is paying attention, why do they buy the magazine?

    2. One study has found that financial resources at public institutions increased as the US News ranking increased

    3. A Cornell study found that, as ranking decreased, a school had to accept a greater percentage of its applicants, had a smaller percentage of admits actually matriculate, ended up with an overall class with lower SAT scores, and had to reduce loans and give out more grant money.

    As you’ve pointed out, markets vary. You are not competing with Yale. You are competing (I think) for mostly local kids with mostly modest academic credentials, correct? Your institution’s financial aid is not highly regarded, so you are also competing for upper-middle-class kids who can pay most or all of the tuition.

    I have to tell you, Doc, that if I were president of your university, I would be worried. The best I can tell from here, your institution is weakly branded, draws heavily from local, well-off kids, has few financial aid resources to fall back on to attract more kids if demand trails off, and that demand is too closely linked to local economic conditions.

    And, as I understand it, the boomer echo has caused rising applications for many years because there were more seniors and more of them going to college. I believe that echo is scheduled to peak and then decline either this year or next, but I’d have to look it up.

  7. A university education (except in the case of very specialized fields) is what the student makes of it. You could attend the suburban extension campus of Podunk U. and leave with an enlightened, well-rounded mind. Conversely, you could attend Yale and be complete dumb-fuck. (I submit the POTUS as example number one.) Of course, Podunk U. is unlikely to have the best professors in the land, but it will probably have some good ones.

    And i’m not just saying that because my alma mater didn’t make the list. After declining an invitation from a University that always makes those lists, i ended up at a mediocre state university, which happened to have one of the top three comparative religion departments in the country…which also happened to be what stoked my intellectual fire. None-the-less, what was important was that there was a fire to be stoked.

  8. Lex:

    Yeah. I’ve heard that argument before. And then I’ve had working faculty members tell me they dumb down their curricula and inflate their grades based on the average academic skills in the classroom. What that says to me is that the bar is being lowered, and I haven’t observed a whole lot of superior performance in my life, anywhere I’ve ever been or worked, when bars have been lowered.

    Is it true that a university education is “what you make of it”? In a sense,. It’s also true, I suppose, that one can get a great education just by visiting a good library, or even a bunch of rather poor libraries the way Abraham Lincoln did. But that doesn’t mean the local library has any business charging you a tuition to hang out there.

  9. Dustbert:

    Yep, and it’s still true that those schools, and every other school I know of, have what are called “developmental admits.” This is a fancy term meaning for saying that daddy has a lot of money, and is willing to donate a lot of it to the school. So, there will always be people of W’s modest gifts coming from those schools, as well as every other school.