America’s Top Colleges List is Broken

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Let me guess. You looked at the recent Top Colleges List published by Michael Noer and suspiciously thought, “this doesn’t seem right.” I know that’s what went through my mind when I first looked at the list and found that my school, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, was number 147 on the list.

Since the list was published, I’ve had over 50 different conversations with people to ask them what they thought about the rankings. Overwhelming, the response was something along the lines of “the list is broken.” That was my feeling too.

As someone with a background in math and engineering, I can say that building out a model like this is not an easy task and I applaud Michael and his team for procuring such a comprehensive and transparent list. However, after reviewing the methodology behind these rankings, it seems to me like we should be measuring the schools on different factors.

If we want to look at “things that matter the most to students,” here are some components we should consider in next year’s list:

College Brand Equity. If you had to do college over again, how many of you would apply to Penn State? Or what would you do if you could attend Harvard? Like everything in life, perception is reality. Associations, prestige, and brand names all matter. For better or worse, people are persuaded by these accolades and if they will help advance your career in the real world, then they should also help advance the rankings of a particular school in this list.

Strength of Alumni Network. I once had a 3 hour meeting where I was pitching a client for new business.  By the end of the meeting I was only 50% certain that I would win the business, until I said, “I’m going to Madison this weekend for a visit.” That one remark sparked another 30 minute conversation because the prospective client also went to Wisconsin for school. That week I won the business and the deal was closed. Connections matter in business and in life. They should also matter in this list.

Number of CEOs or Executives at Companies. How many of you have read the biography of Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Warren Buffet, Mark Cuban, Richard Branson or other great business leaders? You’ve probably done this because you want to know what it takes to be successful. There are other great business leaders and captains of industry that are lesser known. These are CEOs and Executives at Fortune 500 companies and promising start ups. If some colleges produce more leaders than others, it’s probably a good indication that other great leaders will emerge from those schools and therefore, this metric should be part of the ranking methodology.

Number of Students Participating in Entrepreneurship Centers. To succeed in today’s global economy you must be innovative, adaptive and independent. Entrepreneurs understand this better than anyone, but the schools that understand this are the ones encouraging and operating those entrepreneurship centers. These schools are the ones that accept and embrace change and they are also the ones that will most likely survive the looming academic bubble.

Student Load Default Rates. Although this is included in the methodology, this component should be weighted much higher than 5%. The concept of school is simple. You go to school to learn and then you use that education to get a job and earn a living. If your student loans exceed your earnings then by definition, your career is less valuable than what you paid for it. Easy math. Easy metric. It should be weighted higher.

What other metrics do you think are missing from the list?

Connect with Dan Reich on Twitter – @danreich.

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