Once, not so long ago in geological terms, I was young and wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm about higher education. I remember blithely charging ahead, ruthlessly comparing possible colleges, dumping those that didn’t make the cut. It was a time of angst and a time of adverbs. And now that college application season is once again upon us, I’m sure that you, dear reader, are beginning the same journey. Or you know someone who is. Or you’re reliving the college search experience after a mid-life crisis.

The bugbear of the college search is always … the rankings. Those altars to capitalist meritocracy. Those benchmarks of bourgeoisdom. Isn’t it high time that someone put the rankings in their place — by ranking them? I picked out five college rankings, including only those with a remotely defensible statistical method. So no rankings of the most beautiful campuses. No arbitrary party school rankings. No misogynistic rankings of the “hottest college coeds.” Just … nope.

I ranked the rankings according to…well…how much I like them. But that isn’t to say there’s no principal behind it. I tend to prefer rankings that prioritize educational outcomes over entrance criteria and prestige. Now pay attention. You don’t want this to happen to you.

6. U.S. News & World Report

This grandee of American college rankings has probably guided more young people into their careers as disaffected students than any other. U.S. News numbers are regularly wheeled out by college admissions officers seeking to entice impressionable young minds to swallow the admissions hook. The value of climbing into the top 100 is an article of faith among some college administrators, a cool calculation for others.

But the rankings themselves are a messy hodgepodge of metrics with dubious connection to the real value of a college education – or to any measurable educational outcome. Almost a quarter, 22.5 percent, of a school’s score comes from a “reputation” poll. The Atlantic put together a good primer on the problems with the U.S. News rankings that you can find here.

Then again, since they’re by far the most popular rankings, if you make your college choice based on U.S. News & World you’re in an excellent position to gloat.


5. AP Top 25 Poll

Let’s be honest, if you’re going to pick a college on the basis of U.S. News numbers, you might as well drop the facade and pick the school with the best performing football team. The AP uses the time-honored method of asking a panel of sportswriters which team is the best, which, let’s be honest, probably makes more sense than other rankings I could name. (Hint: it rhymes with “U.S. Cues.”)

At least if you run with the AP Poll you know what you’re getting: A huge, probably state school, with dynamite tailgates and dynamic tailbacks. And because the rankings change surprisingly little over decades, your choice of Ohio State or LSU or Oklahoma or Florida is likely to pay off in a lifetime of opportunities to yell at a TV screen on a Saturday, if that’s what you like to do.

4. Payscale Return on Investment Rankings

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Payscale ranks colleges according to their graduates return on investment (ROI). That is, if tuition was your “principle” and you “invested” it in your education, how much can you expect to earn in educational “dividends”? The ROI idea is a good one, in that ROI is something measurable and obviously meaningful. The downsides are twofold.

The assumption behind ranking schools based on something like ROI is that the primary purpose of higher education is to produce human beings who are more effective at accruing personal wealth. Now, if this is your goal in life, the Payscale rankings are your best friend ever. Except …

Payscale ranks schools on average ROI, which means your actual ROI could vary wildly from that neat-and-tidy $900k Payscale says you’ll rake in with a degree from Harvey Mudd. Stacks on stacks, baby.

3. Forbes Grateful Grads Index

Forbes probably has the most original idea behind any of the rankings in this list. Instead of ranking colleges by how smart their entering classes are (I’m looking at you U.S. News), or how much money their graduates make, Forbes ranks schools by how likely their graduates are to give back and in what quantities. (It’s Forbes — the money still matters.)

Matt Schriftin and Liyan Chen describe the reasoning behind the Grateful Grads Index:

“The idea is that the best colleges are the ones that produce successful people who make enough money during their careers to be charitable, and feel compelled to give back to their Alma mater. In many ways the private not-for-profit college business model is all about admitting and producing the best crop of future donors. In order to level the playing field for colleges that produce lots of grateful grads in lower paying fields like education, academia or government service, we also factor in 3-year alumni participation rates, which show the percentage of alumni who donate each year regardless of the amount. In other words, we let alumni dollars and devotion determine successful college outcomes.”

Picking a school you can expect to be grateful to — grateful enough to donate some green ones — sounds like a good idea to me. Of course, Forbes ranks only private colleges, so to evaluate Big State U, you gotta look elsewhere.

2. The Economist’s First-Ever College Rankings

Britain’s premier weekly news journal — no, I’m not talking about Heat — waded into the college rankings ballyhoo with a nifty, very Economist approach. Using data published on the Department of Education’s “college scorecard” website, the magazine compared college attendees reported income to the student’s “expected income.” (The data are jumbled a bit. The income figures for each include graduates as well as those who enrolled but did not graduate.) The Brookings Institute did something similar here.

The Economist used a multiple regression analysis to predict how much money students might have earned if they’d gone to a different school. For example, No. 1 in the rankings is Washington and Lee University in Virginia, whose students end up with median earnings of $77,600. The Economist claims that Washington and Lee students could have expected to earn only $55,230 had they gone to school somewhere else.

Here’s how The Economist explains it:

The Economist’s first-ever college rankings are based on a simple, if debatable, premise: the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money its students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere.

Sure, it’s still all about the money. But this “value-added” approach and the emphasis on median, rather than average, earnings gives these rankings more nuance than the Payscale rankings above. But maybe the biggest reason I like these rankings so much is that they close the “prestige gap.” By now everyone over the age of 3 could list the usual suspects in the top 10. The beautiful thing about the Economist rankings is how accolade-encrusted institutions rub shoulders with their more humble counterparts. And, in some cases, lose. Yale comes in at Number 1270. I bet last place stings.

1. The Washington Monthly College Guide

Like The Economist’s rankings, the Washington Monthly College Guide closes the prestige gap. Most importantly, the College Guide explicitly considers each school’s contribution to social mobility. Schools rank higher in the College Guide if they admit more students who receive Pell Grants, particularly if the majority of enrollees graduate.

The College Guide gives equal weight to three broad categories: social mobility, research, and service — all points of immediate policy relevance. It matters whether American colleges admit low-income students. It matters that a school balances educating and graduating those students with encouraging faculty research. The College Guide appeals to two critical constituencies of American higher education: the students and the policy wonks who will dream up the next, best way to get colleges to serve everyone.

I’m not saying you should run and tumble your way to the highest-ranked school in the College Guide. (And remember that national universities and liberal arts colleges are ranked separately.) No college ranking can do any more than paint schools with a broad brush. Perhaps the best thing about college rankings is that they help you to distill what really matters to you about higher education, whether that’s football, ROI, gratitude, or sticking it to Yale.

Indeed, there’s something basically wrong with our obsessed drive to rank colleges at all. After all, the most important thing you’ll do at college (as in life) is learn — about the world, about other people, about yourself. The true measure of the school is thus immeasurable.

Photos via Flickr.com/James Loesch