How do you make out the bad colleges from the good ones? It is quite a chore to separate the chaff from the wheat. As a blurb for an article on the topic points out, “while good schools are basically all alike, every crappy school is crappy in its own way.” Come admissions time, finding which college to consider is no easy task.
It may not be easy, but it’s not impossible. Students, and their parents, can take recourse to the main indicators of college quality to find out: cost of attendance, alumni salary, return on investment (ROI), and graduation rate. They could also look at some other indicators, such as students’ feedback about teachers, students’ opinions about the quality of the campus life, class sizes, gender distribution, location, and crime on campus and in the city where the college is located.
Among the indicators, ROI is one of the most important. Whatever the benefits of education beyond financial considerations, college is inarguably an investment from which the investors expect good returns, that is, a degree that leads to employment. Some colleges equip their students for the job market better than others, and some just fail to do so, and it is important for students and their parents to be able to tell between them.
One definition of ROI is that it is “the total earnings minus the cost of the degree, minus the average earnings over the person with only a high school education.” Another definition says that ROI is “the difference between the 20-year median pay for a bachelor’s grad and 24-year median pay for a high-school grad minus the total four-year cost of attendance.”
In its “Best-Value Colleges” list prepared as part of its 2018 College ROI report, PayScale provides a list of colleges that can help students with comparative returns on their college-education investments. Its analysis takes into account the 20-year net ROI of a degree, total four-year cost of attendance, graduation rate, typical number years to graduate, and the average loan amount.
The list, which provides the names of as many as 1,878 colleges, puts two US service academies in the first, second, and fourth positions. The top 25 includes MIT (third, ROI $1,015,000), Harvey Mudd College (sixth, $978,000), Colorado School of Mines (eighth, $909,000), and Caltech (tenth, $887,000). Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus (12th, $856,000), Stanford University (16th, $811,000), Princeton University (18th, $797,000), and Harvard University (25th, $760,000) are some others at the top.
The bottom of the list should also be a revelation for students looking for college admission. It helps identify colleges that don’t promise a great ROI for their students’ investment. From rank 133, the ROI starts to fall below $500,000; and from rank 1456, to below $100,000. From rank 1752, the ROI goes into negative. At the dregs of the list are Mississippi Valley State University (rank 1,878, ROI $ (minus) 174,800) and a host of private colleges with negative ROIs running above $100,000.
Of course, it is no one’s argument that only majors with the highest earnings potential and colleges with the best ROIs can provide high-value college degrees. However, these majors and colleges should be on top of the minds of students, particularly of those who go in for huge education loans or depend on their family for funds or on their own savings. They are well-advised to examine the financial success of the alumni of their target college before they decide.
Along with ROI, the graduation rate of a college is also one of the main indicators. It doesn’t just help students to estimate how likely they are to graduate, but it also helps them estimate the cost of their degree. If most students in a college take more than four years to get their degree, you cannot budget for just four years of tuition. If most students don’t graduate, you may not earn a degree at all, and you cannot hope to get a job with a higher salary with a degree.
During the admissions season, hundreds of print and Web articles about “the best” colleges magically appear. They mainly gain the attention of top students, most of whom already have a clear idea which college they will be opting for, and probably only want to know how their favorite college has done against the other great colleges in surveys. Like the article blurb referred to points out, the top colleges are all quite similar: big endowment funds, small class sizes, sprawling campuses, good buildings and other facilities, great faculty, and high selectivity.
However, these lists have limited use for students who are less than topnotch. These students rather need “worst-colleges lists” that help them to keep away from really bad colleges, but there aren’t usually many such lists. Some such lists that appear are only “best colleges” lists turned upside down. Apparently, worst-colleges lists are a little more difficult to prepare than best-colleges lists, as they need even more painstaking analysis and a greater sense of fairness. In the end, comparison between institutions on various criteria will still remain quite subjective.
For, who is to say whether a high-tuition college with an average graduation rate is better or worse than a college with medium-range tuition but an even lower graduation rate? Is a nonselective college that charges low fees but hasn’t tasted much success with its graduation rate better or worse than an institution with a high graduation rate but charges such high fees that students go out with huge debts? Is a college that has only low tuition but scores low in every other indicator even worth a second look?
A worst-colleges list would be particularly useful for high-school and graduate students who can’t hope to enter the best colleges or even institutions rated “good.” Of course, they too have their favorite-colleges list, but that’s just a wish list. The practical-minded among them keep a list of “safety colleges,” where they have a chance.
For such students, it is crucial to keep their “safe choices” free of bad colleges. At least some of these colleges are “drop-out factories” running high-tuition programs that don’t get them even reasonably-paying jobs but saddle them with huge loans. Because of a lack of awareness, many students unknowingly include colleges and universities with low ROIs in their “safe choices” list, which could spell disaster for their future.
But lists of bad colleges do exist. An analysis by policy analyst Ben Miller in Washington Monthly classifies “bad colleges” into four lists, based on four different sets of criteria. Two of these sets of criteria are particularly useful.
In the first list, a “high net price” (that is, tuition minus scholarships/grants), high average student debt, high student-loan-default rate, and low graduation rate are given equal weight. Both private for-profit or private non-profit institutions find place in the list but not public universities. In the second list, a low graduation rate is given more weight than other indicators. Again, no public college appears in the list that has a majority of for-profit private institutions.
The third list names colleges that have the highest student-loan-defaulter rates and percentage of graduates from among full-time students, and the fourth list takes into account the graduation rate for minority students and the net price charged to low-income students.
“Best-Value Colleges” lists can be used to spot not only the top colleges that give the best ROI but also good colleges whose ROIs are a little lower than those of the best. For example, Forbes’ third annual America’s Best-Value Colleges ranking of 300 colleges helps students evaluate the likely ROI from indicators such as the net price (tuition), net debt, alumni earnings, timely graduation, school quality, and access to low-income students.
The list puts the University of California, LA; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Irvine, at number one, two, and fourth positions. Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton universities are at sixth, seventh, and eighth places, respectively. Yale is at 14th. At the bottom of the list are the Northern Arizona University; St. John’s College, Santa Fe; and the University of Massachusetts Boston. Remember that they still find place in the best-value list and are certainly not “bad colleges.”
Owlcation, an online education magazine features “the worst” universities and colleges in the US using data from Fortune, US News, College Factual, College Scorecard, Rate My Professor, Wikipedia, Business Insider, and The Street. Its article on the topic, updated in July 2018, warns students seeking college admission against going by one or two criteria to decide whether a college is good or bad.
It persuades them to revisit the popular belief that the older a college the better it probably is. One institution that appears in its “worst” list is a 150-year-old university in North Carolina, with a “deficient faculty” and an ROI of negative $110,000. At this university, the cost of a four-year education is $111,000 and the median alumni starting salary $37,000.
A state university in Louisiana mentioned in the list also has a hoary past: it had its centenary in 2001. But the average alumni starting salary is low at $28,000, and it manages to ensure only above-high-school-diploma salary, and that too to only four out of every ten alumni. This university graduates students with a loan burden of $38,000, which only 23 percent of them manage to repay. Less than 20 percent of students graduate on time.
A beautiful campus may mask some ugly truths. In Alabama, a public university’s environs hardly make up for its net 20-year ROI of $77,000 of a four-year degree that costs $86,000. No wonder that the student loan default rate is high at this university.
A private college of technology in Tennessee has a low student-loan default rate, but the average loan is $41,000. This college, rated the third worst in the US, has a 5 percent on-time graduation rate and no claim to gender balance, with males making up over 80 percent of the student body.
A small private school in Miami, Florida, has an adequate number of teachers and a low student-faculty ratio. But it is limited by its narrow range of programs, such as social work and psychology. This in part explains its low ROI on an annual tuition of $21,000. The student loan default is high and the on-time graduate rate low. To add to its unattractiveness for students, the school is located in a crime-prone area.
Appearances may be deceptive, but the fact that an institution maintains a low profile should not put off students, says a Forbes article from September 2018. It gives a list of colleges that give students a chance to graduate without debt. Financial aid, graduation rates, and enrolment of a high percentage of low-income students are the criteria for the list that includes the University of California, San Diego; U of C, Irvine; U if C, Riverside; Utah State; University of Utah; and Brigham Young.
A blogger points out in an article titled “The Worst Colleges and How to Spot them” that a “bad college” may have still an excellent program for a particular major. He cites the example of the Arkansas Tech University, which, he says, has a great program for hospitality. Other students with a different choice of majors may find this college below par, but if the hotel industry is where a student is looking to work, AKU is a good choice, he says.
Some students give some colleges a thumbs down for flimsy reasons. Some don’t give their colleges a chance to equip them with the skills and knowledge to become employable and go through their crucial years only for the “campus experience.” Still others don’t choose courses that would make them a good candidate in the job market while taking out huge loans.
They forget the fact that most colleges, though certainly not all, would give them a good leg up if they put their hearts into their education and major in a good field, such as medical, engineering, or accountancy, for example. Less-hyped colleges could give them a proper education if they give these institutions a chance.
Along with American students, students outside the US are also bedazzled by the hype over the country’s top colleges. The reputation created by the truly great educational institutions in that country blinds them to the fact of existence of really bad colleges. Not only are many US colleges not the “world’s best,” they also struggle with indicators of good colleges with their high tuition, high student debt, and low graduation rates.
As Miller, who was a senior policy advisor in the US Department of Education, says, “They fly under the radar with little attention and unearned positive reputations. And only the students who have the misfortune to enroll at one of these places find out the truth…It’s time to get these colleges some attention by putting them at the top of the list” (that is, a list that would expose them).