Too Much the Same

by Jane S. Shaw

The new Forbes rankings have arrived, and there aren’t many surprises. That’s the case even though their author, Richard Vedder, is trying to rank schools with outcome measures (salaries of graduates, number of Rhodes scholars, listings in Who’s Who) rather than U.S. News’s input and reputation measures.

The top of Forbes’s list hasn’t deviated dramatically from U.S. News’s list since it started in 2008. This year’s top ten include Williams, Princeton, West Point, Amherst, Stanford, Harvard, Haverford, University of Chicago, MIT, and the Air Force Academy.

There are, of course, a few differences. Haverford is a surprise, and Yale is only at No. 14, and undoubtedly the differences multiply when one goes down the list. But the Forbes rankings show that, by and large, the top schools judged by inputs and reputation are still the top schools, even when ranked by salary and Who’s Who.

So maybe they are, in fact, the top schools! But there’s an important fact we should not forget: Colleges that attract the most accomplished and ambitious high schoolers are likely to produce the most accomplished and ambitious graduates. That will be the case even if those students listen to professorial dogma and get easy “A’s” for the four years before they get their diploma.

Because students themselves are major contributors to their success, colleges strive to build a reputation that keeps talented teens applying (in many cases, only to be rejected). If they can keep the very best high-school students coming, they will have the best graduates, and they will perpetuate their reputations as great schools.

That’s why admissions officers are so important. If they’ve done their job well, the actual “value added” by teaching during the four years doesn’t matter all that much. That’s my beef with the rankings.