New College Rankings Created Using College Scorecard Data

by Jenna Leventoff
November 6, 2015

Traditionally, students, parents, and employers have looked to rankings from just a handful of entities, including U.S. News & World Report, to gauge the quality of higher education institutions. However, rankings are subjective, and not everyone agrees about what criteria indicate quality. The release of the Department of Education’s (ED’s) College Scorecard and College Scorecard Data websites have allowed other entities, such as the Economist and the Brookings Institution, to create their own rankings based upon their own criteria. These new rankings provide different measures to help students and parents consider how postsecondary education can impact their future careers.

Both rankings focus on monetary success. Generally speaking, each utilized the College Scorecard’s data to compare their own estimates of alumni’s expected income to actual outcomes to determine the financial gains attributable to each college. Nevertheless, the rankings reached largely different conclusions.

The Economist based its estimate about the expected earnings of alumni of 4-year colleges on a variety of factors, including SAT scores, race, prevailing wages in the school’s city, the number of Pell grant recipients at each school, and even whether students had an affinity for marijuana. The Economist’s top rankings went to schools whose graduates exceeded estimated income. According to this ranking method, the top three schools were Washington and Lee University, Babson College, and Villanova University, while the bottom three schools were Gallaudet University, St. John's College, and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.


The Brookings Institution ranked both two and four year colleges. Somewhat similar to the Economist, it based its estimate about expected earnings on factors including family incomes, the regional cost of living near the school, race, and test scores. The top ranking schools were those that had the highest score on a scale of 1 to 100, with higher scores signifying the greatest increase over expected earnings. Fifteen 4-year colleges, including a handful of maritime colleges, Babson College, and Harvard University, as well as thirteen 2-year colleges including North Central Institute, Foothill College, and Highland College of Montana Tech, received the Brookings Institute’s top score. The 16 bottom scoring 4-year colleges include a number of prestigious conservatories such as The Julliard School and the Boston Conservancy, while the 14 bottom scoring 2-year colleges include the Golf Academy of America - Myrtle Beach and Honolulu Community College.

The Economist compared its results to Brookings’ and found that, “the Brookings numbers regard a college’s curriculum as a significant part of its “value add”, causing the top of its rankings to be dominated by engineering schools, and the bottom by art and religious institutions. In contrast, we treated fields of study as a reflection of student preferences, and tried to identify the colleges that offer the best odds of earning a decent living for people who do want to become artists or study in a Christian environment. Similarly, the Brookings rankings do not appear to weight SAT scores nearly as heavily as ours do, if they count them at all: colleges like Caltech and Yale, whose graduates earn far more money than those of an average university but significantly less than their elite test results would indicate, sit at the very bottom of the Economist’s list, whereas Brookings puts them close to the top.”

The Economist’s comparison illustrates how different priorities can impact rankings. Nevertheless, WDQC is pleased that the College Scorecard has enabled institutions to conduct research and draw their own conclusions. WDQC applauds all efforts to provide students with the information they need to make informed decisions.