UI jumps 33 spots in Forbes 'Top Colleges' ranking

UI jumps 33 spots in Forbes 'Top Colleges' ranking

If affordability and job success are important factors in your college search, this ranking may interest you.

The University of Illinois again made the top 100 on Forbes Magazine's sixth annual "America's Top Colleges" ranking, done in conjunction with the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

The UI jumped 33 spots over its 2012 ranking, to No. 53, and is 10th on the list of public colleges, ahead of Wisconsin, Texas, Penn State and Indiana.

University officials aren't crowing about the improvement, as they tend to downplay rankings good or bad. Academic institutions often cite problems with the methods used to compute rankings, particularly those that place weight on subjective judgments from students, high school counselors or peer institutions.

"We have a set of things by which we measure how well we're doing. Those are the metrics we need to stay focused on," said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler. "It's lovely when these organizations recognize that we're doing great things. But we really don't think they accurately reflect the excellence of Illinois."

Forbes touts its ranking as different from others, such as U.S. News & World Report's, because it focuses on a student's return on investment — "output" over "input," as editor Caroline Howard wrote explaining the ranking's methodology.

"We're not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank, SAT scores and the like. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college?" she writes.

The "America's Top Colleges" rankings are based 12 factors in five general categories: post-graduate success (37.5 percent), which evaluates alumni pay (from paysale.com) and prominence; student satisfaction (22.5 percent), which includes professor evaluations and freshman-to-sophomore retention rates; debt (17.5 percent); four-year graduation rates (11.25 percent); and academic success (11.25 percent), which considers students who earn competitive awards and fellowships or who go on to earn Ph.D.s.

Under that scale, the top 10 are Stanford University, Pomona College, Princeton University, Yale University, Columbia University, Swarthmore College, the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), Harvard University, Williams College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The list includes the same schools as last year's top 10, in different order, except that MIT replaced the University of Chicago (No. 4 in 2012).

There are problems with that data, says the UI's Kaler. For one, 15 percent of the student satisfaction component is based on ratemyprofessor.com, a website where students can rate professors based on such factors as helpfulness and clarity. (They can also click on a chili pepper to vote whether the professor is "hot" or not, though the chili pepper scale is not included in the ranking.) The satisfaction rating also uses freshman-to-sophomore retention rates reported to the Department of Education.

U.S. News uses judgments by peer institutions and high school counselors, which are also subjective but at least they track response rates and survey size, Kaler said. Ratemyprofessor is self-selecting, and some professors may have only a handful of ratings but are weighted alongside those with hundreds, said Chris Harris, research coordinator for the Office of Public Affairs.

The data also tend to favor select private schools, as they draw students from higher income brackets that may wind up with less debt, and schools with smaller enrollments, Kaler said.

"We have a different mission than they do," she said.

Not including U.S. military service academies, only six public schools came out in the top 50 — California-Berkeley (22) Virginia (29), Michigan (30), UCLA (34), North Carolina (38), William and Mary (44).

West Point, the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy are likely among the top 50 because their students pay no tuition and graduate with little or no debt because of their military service, Harris said. They also appeal to a students with a very specific career interest.

Simply put, Kaler said, Forbes decides what constitutes a good school based on whether "some group of students said they had a good experience and they liked their professors, how much you make when you leave, which of your alums are important or in lucrative fields ... and whether or not you graduate with debt and how much."

"There's nothing about the quality of education or the quality of incoming students," Harris added.

But it is the kind of ranking Forbes, as a business magazine, would be expected to provide, he said.

Most rankings were developed to sell magazines or advertising, Kaler said, but they are used by students, counselors, legislators and even funding institutions. Admissions staff "get asked about it all the time," she said.

"We pay attention to these because our customers are," Harris said.

The UI tracks, through its own metrics, whether it's keeping abreast with public universities that it regards as its peer group — California-Berkeley, UCLA, Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan and California-San Diego. The top 10 public schools in the Forbes ranking tracks that list fairly closely, Harris said.

"It's always nice when we land on the top of the pile, because people do look at these things. We really still would rather have students come and visit us and see what we have to offer them in the particular program in which they're interested initially, and see the depth and breadth we have in case they change their minds," Kaler said.

The "America's Top College's" rankings, and a link to the methodology, can be found here: http://www.forbes.com/top-colleges/list/.

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