The obsession of many high school students and their parents about getting into a prestige college or university is part of the social scene of our time. So is the experience of parents going deep into hock to finance sending a son or daughter off to Ivy U. or the flagship campus of the state university system.
Sometimes both the student and the parent end up with big debts from financing a degree from some prestige institution. Yet these are the kinds of institutions that many have their hearts set on.
Media hype adds to the pressure to go where the prestige is. A key role is often played by the various annual rankings of colleges and universities, especially the rankings by U.S. News & World Report. These rankings typically measure all sorts of inputs-- but not outputs.
The official academic accrediting agencies do the same thing. They measure how much money is spent on this or that, how many professors have tenure and other kinds of inputs. What they don't measure is the output-- what kind of education the students end up with.
A new think tank in Washington is trying to shift the emphasis from inputs to outputs. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity is headed by Professor Richard Vedder, who gives the U.S. News rankings a grade of D. Measuring the inputs, he says, is "roughly equivalent to evaluating a chef based on the ingredients he or she uses."
His approach is to "review the meal"-- that is, the outcome of the education itself.
The CCAP study uses several measures of educational output, including the proportion of a college's graduates who win awards like the Rhodes Scholarships or who end up listed in "Who's Who in America," as well as the ratings that students give the professors who teach them.
Professor Vedder admits that these are "imperfect" measures of a college's educational output, but at least they are measures of output instead of input.
Some academic institutions come out at or near the top by either input or output criteria but there were some large changes in rankings as well. Among national universities, the top three are the same-- but in different order-- whether ranked by U.S. News or by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. They are Harvard, Yale and Princeton, according to Professor Vedder's think tank, and Princeton, Harvard and Yale in the U.S. News rankings.
Among the liberal arts colleges, however, there were some big changes. Although Williams and Amherst were the top two in both rankings, Washington & Lee moved up from 15th to 6th when ranked by Professor Vedder's group and Barnard climbed from 30th to 8th.