Students

New Rankings Gauge Colleges’ ‘Value Added’ by Measuring Alumni Outcomes

April 29, 2015

The Brookings Institution joined a crowded market of efforts to classify colleges with the release on Wednesday of its new "value added" rankings.

The rankings consider how well colleges’ alumni performed on three economic measures: midcareer earnings, student-loan repayment, and "occupational earnings power," the average salary of occupations in which alumni work.

To come up with value-added measures, the think tank compared the performance of a college’s alumni on each gauge to their expected performance based on student characteristics and college type. Such a calculation is meant to determine the portion of alumni success that can be attributed to the college, rather than giving an institution credit for, say, enrolling a wealthy, well-prepared student body. (Much more detail on the methodology is available in a report about the new rankings.)

The idea of a value-added ranking is not entirely new. As the Brookings report acknowledges, Money magazine devised a list of colleges that it said added the most value — using a different methodology — as part of its college rankings.

Brookings provides up to three scores for each college, instead of one comprehensive ranking. That decision was made because not all of the needed data was available for every college, said Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow with Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the lead author of the report. For instance, data on Mr. Rothwell’s favorite metric, midcareer earnings, came from PayScale and were available for only 1,298 colleges.

Unlike some other rankings, Brookings’s covers two-year as well as four-year colleges. It also pinpoints measures of college quality that are strongly associated with successful economic outcomes for alumni, including the share of graduates prepared to work in STEM fields and the average level of institutional financial aid.

College rankings are usually geared primarily, if not solely, toward prospective students and their families. And in that spirit the think tank released an online interactive tool designed to help consumers.

Still, the Brookings Institution doesn’t have the same brand recognition among the public as do its competitors, which include magazines like U.S. News & World Report and Forbes as well as companies like PayScale. Brookings is promoting the rankings, but Mr. Rothwell acknowledged that "it’s not going to necessarily reach millions of people."

Prospective students are more likely to encounter Brookings’s rankings via an informed adviser than directly on the institution’s website, he said.

But future students are not the only intended audience. Brookings also wants to reach "regional and state economic and work-force leaders" who may want to create policies that will maximize the economic benefit of higher education for students in their area, Mr. Rothwell said.

The rankings, he added, could also help college presidents discern what sort of investment would most benefit their students.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.