College rankings have become a staple of the college decision-making process for millions of prospective students. Yet college rankings have always been quite different from other familiar consumer ratings such as Consumer Reports or Yelp – because they have never factored in the actual ratings of those who have consumed the good or service: their alumni. Have you ever wondered what the top colleges and universities would look like if they were ranked based on alumni ratings? Thanks to a recent study derived from the largest source of representative surveying of college graduates, we have a sneak peek into what it might look like. Although you’ll see some familiar names, there are also many surprises.
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs entitled “Assessing The Validity of Consumer Ratings for Higher Education” analyzes data collected from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey, a massive representative survey of U.S. adults. (I currently serve on the advisory committee of Strada’s Center for Consumer Insights and formerly worked at Gallup.) The data analyzed come from 146,345 college graduates from 2,989 colleges and universities, of which there were enough respondents from 496 institutions to provide reliable alumni ratings. Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, the lead author and a Senior Economist at Gallup, created an index of alumni ratings based on answers to a series of questions asked of graduates, including how strongly they agreed to statements such as:
–You received a high-quality education
-You would recommend the educational path you took to other people
-You would not be where you are today without your degree
-You learned important skills during college courses that you use in your day-to-day life
-The coursework you took is directly relevant to what you do at work
-Your educational experiences make you an attractive candidate to employersMORE FOR YOUSchools Must Both Reopen And Continue OnlineCorporate Education Will Never Return To The Classroom20% Of Harvard’s First-Year Class Has Deferred
-Your education was worth the cost
-If you had to do it all over again, you would attend the same institution
Unlike the highest-profile rankings today, Rothwell’s ratings were comprised 100% of these alumni ratings. For example, the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings include a novel student satisfaction survey as roughly 17% of their rankings weighting. And US News & World Report includes alumni giving as 3% of their rankings weighting. But neither include actual ratings from alumni in any fashion. In some respects, it’s hard to believe that nearly 40 years into the college rankings era (US News first ranked colleges in 1983) there’s still no inclusion of actual customer reviews as one of the criterion. With college now one of the largest financial decisions (behind only home purchases) for Americans, it’s a wonder why consumer ratings haven’t factored prominently as a guidepost for college selection. Yet here we are with our fist preliminary view.
Here are the top 25 colleges and universities according to alumni ratings:
1. Princeton University
2. Yale University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. University of Maryland – Baltimore
5. Duke University
6. University of Virginia
7. United States Military Academy
8. Cornell University
9. Harvard University
10. Northwestern Business College (now Northwestern College)
11. University of La Verne
12. Colorado School of Mines
13. Wheaton College (IL)
14. Vanderbilt University
15. Johns Hopkins University
16. Emory University
17. Stanford University
18. Rice University
19. Tufts University
20. Lesley University
21. Texas A&M University – Kingsville
22. Azusa Pacific University
23. University of Chicago
24. University of California – Berkeley
25. University of Southern California
There are familiar names typically at the top of current rankings. But there are also a number of surprises including some names most have likely never heard of before. With alumni ratings as the sole criteria, the top 25 includes an incredible variety of regional campuses, a Christian college, a military academy and even a for-profit university. Remarkably, the tuition range among this top 25 is more than 6x from the least expensive (Texas A&M-Kingsville at $9,136 for in-state students) to the most expensive (University of Chicago at $60,522). This point is a great illustration of what the study also found in debunking the myth that price equals quality in higher education; when it comes to alumni ratings, there is no relationship between price and quality.
Clearly, alumni ratings validate some current top-ranked universities while also adding a very diverse and new set of outstanding institutions to the list. No doubt, an expanded sample size that would allow for inclusion of more universities in the ranking would change things further – revealing more ‘diamonds in the rough’ so to speak. This methodology relies on one of the most trusted forms of consumer decision-making (reviews from actual customers) and would likely be widely recognized and adopted as an additional view point for students seeking the ‘best’ colleges and universities. Whether integrated into existing ranking methodology or as a stand-alone ranking, alumni ratings should play an important role in helping prospective students chose a college.
Colleges and universities themselves ought to value such measures – not only for the potential benefit of marketing bragging rights but for their own continuous improvement. Alumni ratings could also make other important contributions to the higher education landscape – including helping us shift from an obsession around rankings to a true ratings system. Is there really a substantial difference, for example, between the #1 ranked university (in any ranking) and the #34 ranked one? What if we had a system more like Energy Star ratings or LEED certification – categorizing universities into a smaller number of easy-to-understand ratings such as Silver, Gold and Platinum? Alumni ratings lend themselves well to establishing this kind of system – which would help eliminate some of the ‘noise’ and controversy created by a forced ranking.
Most importantly, alumni ratings are what Americans believe to be among the best determinants of higher education quality. In a survey of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted by QuestResearch on behalf of Kaplan, Americans chose “student and alumni ratings” (47%) over “employer ratings” (25%) and “peer review” (28%) as the best standard for evaluating the quality of universities. Peer review is currently the primary method for determining accreditation; to see that Americans prefer student and alumni ratings nearly 2:1 over peer review gives us real impetus to act. And on this point, all of us can play a role – from prospective students to current students and alumni – in encouraging and illuminating the ratings of those who have fully experienced a particular college or university. No doubt such an effort would lead more students to more deserving universities and vice versa.