Every year, high school students and their parents pore over the rankings of colleges across the country while building their college lists. Sites like Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and Niche use massive amounts of data to rank colleges in a variety of categories.
While each ranking system is different and has its own set of criteria, most people have little understanding of what goes into the rankings. We simply see these rankings and take what they say at face value. These rankings have taken precedence, so much so that some parents are willing to spend thousands of dollars to get their children into highly ranked colleges illegally.
But these rankings often fail to look at how to obtain a degree at a reasonable price. Students are drawn into the ranking systems, but need to ensure that they are looking at the ranks that will help them succeed in the future, regardless of the name-recognition and apparent prestige of the university.
America’s Affordable Elite Colleges
One ranking system, from Washington Monthly, ranks four-year schools based on three different categories: research, social mobility, and providing opportunities for public service. To compile the data for “America’s Affordable Elite Colleges” they took 208 of the most selective colleges and ranked them based on the degree to which they recruit and graduate students from middle and lower income families, the net price they charge those students, and the students’ future earnings. The goal was to help students understand the financial commitment they are making and how it might affect their future.
According to Washington Monthly, here are the top ten elite colleges that you can actually afford:
Why This Ranking Matters
Every year, students who have near-perfect SAT or ACT scores, rank at the top of their class and have an impressive resume of extracurricular achievements get into Ivy League schools and other top-tier universities. However, they are then faced with a tough decision, as that acceptance letter also comes with a hefty price tag. By examining what the net price of the school will be, as well as the predicted earnings, it shows students the financial commitment they are making when they choose a school and major.
Here are a few things students should consider before applying to a particular college:
- Look at the major and future earning potential. According to a PayScale’s 2019–2020 College Salary Report, the majors that had the highest earning potential tended to be STEM majors, with engineering, accounting, and aerospace studies topping the list. On the other hand, arts and humanities majors tend to earn less initially, with social work, early childhood special education, and human services ranking at the bottom of PayScale’s list. But, over time, many humanities fields tend to catch up with their professional peers.
- What types of financial aid is offered. When I tell parents that the Ivy League schools only offer need-based aid and no merit-based scholarships, they are often surprised. That means they do not offer athletic or academic scholarships. The reason Ivy League schools do not offer merit-based scholarships is that they believe that their students are all academically exemplary, and therefore only provide need-based scholarships.
Students at graduation
Photo by Pixabay
Name-Recognition Vs. Affordability
Take two colleges: Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college in New York City. With a beautiful campus and national name recognition, it’s the type of university that many people think of when they imagine the stereotypical college experience.
The second college: Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York system. It has no traditional campus, and roughly 50% of its students are in the first generation of their family to attend college. Unless you live down the street from it, you likely have never heard of Baruch.
What might surprise you is how alike these two schools are in their academic qualifications. The average SAT score of Sarah Lawrence’s freshman is 1240–1410, and at Brauch, it is 1190–1350. Baruch has an acceptance rate of 39%, and Sarah Lawrence is at 56%.
While just looking at the numbers, it might seem like both schools are an equally good choice, with Sarah Lawrence holding the advantage due to its overall reputation and rankings. But where Brauch takes the competitive edge is in the costs.
For the average household making less than $75,000 a year, it costs just $4,128 a year to attend Brauch. For Sarah Lawrence, it would set you back $24,682.
Even though there are many factors we can judge a potential school on, we tend to fall back on ideas like prestige and name recognition.
The Rankings Are Here To Stay
Perhaps the real reason we have become obsessed with rankings stems back to the 1980s, when two major events occurred: the federal funding cuts proposed by Ronald Reagan and the launching of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings in 1983.
The federal cuts by Reagan had a bigger impact than perhaps initially anticipated. By the end of the 1980s, the federal portion of education funding had decreased from 12% to 6%. More state cuts were also inflicted upon colleges and universities, and suddenly, they needed a way to raise more money.
During this period, U.S. News and World Report began to rank colleges, which was the first time universities were judged under set standards and metrics. Currently, U.S. News and World Report ranks more than 1800 universities, from commuter schools to prestigious universities.
The U.S. News and World Report rankings, as well as other similar sites, helped the American people understand the numerous college options out there, and how they ranked in relation to one another. As millions of dollars were cut from student assistance programs and Pell Grants, tuition costs began to escalate. This, in turn, caused parents and students to start to reconsider college costs and justify the considerable expenses. They wanted to make sure that their degree was worth the investment, and one of the best ways to ensure that was to go to a highly-ranked, reputable school.
Can The Rankings Be Manipulated?
Students who rely heavily on the ranking sites need to take to look at the full picture of how the rankings are formed. Unfortunately, universities understand the unhealthy obsession students have at looking at the lists, and therefore the rank matters significantly to the institutions as well. Gaining the prestige of a top-ranked school has caused some to send in false data, change aspects of the institution or use other tactics to increase their rankings.
What can be so troubling about the college rankings and the stock we put in them is how easy it is for colleges to manipulate that data. For example, one metric that many ranking sites use measures selectivity as a way to show the school’s desirability and prestige. The goal of many universities is now to encourage more people to apply, therefore increasing the applicant pool and decreasing the acceptance rate. Schools like Princeton ( 5.5% for the class of 2022), Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( 6.7% for the class of 2023), and Brown University ( 6.6% for the class of 2023) have all seen their admission rates plummet in recent years.
Another crucial ranking metric that can be tinkered with is the average test scores and GPAs of incoming freshmen. For example, the U.S. News and World Report weights the standardized scores at 7.75% of the total ranking. Some universities have found a way around these metrics. These schools, like Northeastern University, will specifically tell the international applicants not to submit their SAT and ACT data.
U.S. News and World Report will penalize universities that either fail to submit all scores received from students or misrepresent the information. However, if the school doesn’t collect that data in the first place, there is nothing to report to U.S. News and World Report. For schools like Northeastern, which accepts 11% of its freshman class from international applications, this means a significant portion of its student body’s scores haven’t been factored into the average that was sent to U.S. News and World Report.
The right college for you doesn’t necessarily have to be the most selective or prestigious. We have been conditioned to believe that those institutions with admittance rates in the single digits are the best ones to attend. However, before taking out a loan, you should do more research than just checking the college ranking sites. Explore colleges that you can actually afford, so you can receive a quality education, graduate with minimal debt and have a successful career.