Rankings and Selectivity: What’s the Deal? (Part 2)

This post is part of a series of three posts on the topic of college rankings and selectivity and how much it may or may not matter when the time comes to choose where to apply and where to attend. Check out Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

A recent article from The Atlantic takes a slightly different look at college rankings.  The article explores a new ranking recently issued by The Economist that weighs expected earnings for individual schools versus actual median earnings 10 years after graduation utlizing data gathered by the Department of Education for College Scorecard.  Expected earnings are determined using various factors including test scores, whether the school is public or private, ratio of men to women, and student diversity.  These rankings found Washington and Lee University, a private liberal-arts college in Virginia, offered the biggest median earnings gain over expected earnings.  And while Harvard, is still ranked very highly at fourth, fellow Ivies, Princeton and Yale, are ranked a dismal 772 and 1,270(!!).

Like all studies of this nature, there are challenges and flaws.  The authors of this study note:

a decade may not be a sufficient amount of time to prove earnings’ persistence, and many former students may be in graduate school during that time, which would lower median earnings temporarily. Additionally, the researchers used a dataset comprised solely of those who applied for federal financial aid, which would leave out the most affluent students at each school, and their subsequent salaries.

Another recent article from The Atlantic¹ examined the results offered by one study that ultimately said “[it] depends.”  I know–not the answer you’re really looking for, but it’s helpful to take a deeper look.  The study took a look at earnings 10 years after graduation from undergrad and ultimately found that “for certain majors, going to a top-tier institution is invaluable. But for many career paths, it just doesn’t matter where a person got his or her education.”  So depending on the field you’re interested in pursuing, it may or may not make a big impact in your long term earnings.  Here’s how it broke down:

school choice mattered the most for business majors.  Those who attended top schools earn 12 percent more than their peers who went to schools that were in the middle of the pack…For social science and education majors there was also a significant boost that came from attending a better-ranked school.  By contrast, engineers who went to the most selective schools enjoyed only a marginal earnings benefit over their peers at mid-tier institutions. And while humanities majors at the most elite schools enjoyed higher earnings than peers at the least selective schools, there was virtually no difference between top-tier and mid-tier earnings. For science majors, the prestige of a school mattered least of all.

It is important to note that the researchers didn’t find conclusive reasoning for these differences.  But they do have some ideas:

they suspect that business majors at the most prestigious schools may benefit from better internship opportunities and more robust networks than their peers at lower-ranked schools. And sciences may involve more standardized major requirements, meaning that the core competencies taught are essentially the same no matter where a student winds up.


*The Atlantic is one of my favorite spots for news, especially education news.


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