How one company is trying to tackle the college-ranking system

A company is trying to change the old-school model of US college rankings by looking at the numbers beyond the college experience.

Mel Evans/AP
People walk through the newly opened Campus Town at The College of New Jersey Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Ewing Township, N.J.

It's no secret that U.S. News & World Report rules college rankings.

Every year, the news magazine publishes a “Best Colleges” guide. In 2013, U.S. News reached an all-time high of 18.9 million page views in a single day – the day the 2014 Best Colleges list was released. 

Bob Morse runs the rankings list, (“The Morse Code”) which has become one of the most popular stories on an annual basis for the weekly print publication. It’s a position Morse has held since the mid 1980s. In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, Morse said, “In the early years, the thing that’s happening now would not have been imaginable. This idea of using the rankings as a benchmark, college presidents setting a goal … That wasn’t on anybody’s radar.”

U.S. News ranks colleges based on a number of factors – including faculty resources, financial resources, graduation and retention rates, and endowment. One thing U.S. News does not include in its report is post-graduate earnings. Nor does it include how some of these quarter-million dollar price tags at elite private schools impact economic mobility.

CollegeNet, a leading provider in web-based technology for higher education learning headquartered in Portland, Ore., is trying to change that.

Using what they call the Social Mobility Index, CollegeNet now ranks America’s colleges by access, affordability, and how well the school advances economic mobility for its students. State-funded schools like the University of California are close to the top, and the Ivy Leagues – close to the bottom. (Number one was CUNY Bernard M Baruch College.)

The service ranks schools based on their average tuition, and looks at the median income students earn outside of college. And CollegeNet goes one step further: it gives out over $1.5 million in scholarship money.

This is coming at a time when many private schools are reevaluating their admissions processes. The Obama administration has recently come out with the College Scorecard, a database created to look at students’ median earnings ten years out of college – and how many still have college loans. Michelle Obama is an outspoken advocate for mentoring low-income students. 

Other programs, like PayScale, rank colleges solely based on their post-college incomes. (PayScale ranked the State University of New York number one; Harvard and the US Naval Academy tied for third; Yale and Columbia tied at 46.)

A recent PBS report stated that over 80 schools are now trying to “revamp” their admissions process to reach out to disadvantaged students. Schools, such as Stanford University and the University of Chicago, and liberal arts schools like Amherst, Swarthmore, and Williams, are restructuring their applications.

Still, the obsession with rankings and postgraduate success rates often ignore an even larger, and less tangible factor: the real impact a college education can have on someone’s life. 

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