Stanford Is Number One, Pomona Number Two

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The ratings season has begun. Forbes has just released its Best College list (full disclosure: the Center of College Affordability and Productivity, which I direct, does the rankings for Forbes). The Forbes list, more than that of US News & World Report, emphasizes student concerns -quality of instruction, vocational success of graduates, the amount of debt incurred while in school- rather than reputational surveys or the amount of resources used in providing an education.  Forbes also includes institutions of different types (e.g., liberal arts colleges, research universities) in the same rankings list The big news this year is that the Eastern Establishment schools may be losing their domination of the top rung– the Number One and Two schools, Stanford University and Pomona College, are both in California. Stanford ascended to the top in large part because we modestly expanded our emphasis on post-graduate job success, especially as measured by our American Leaders List (which replaced Who’s Who in America.)

As population and wealth moves west, the resources and quality of the institutions in that region slowly grows. Still, the East still largely rules amongst the most elite schools as measured by Forbes: 16 of the top 20 on its list are in Atlantic coast states, and all eight Ivy League schools make the top 15 research universities. To be sure, Harvard (at 8th) is not used to being ranked below Princeton (3), Yale (4), Swarthmore (5) or Columbia (6), much less Pomona or Stanford, but they are still ranked very highly.  A few interesting things stand out among the very top schools:

  • Only two of the 20 top schools are located in the vast area between East Coast states and California, both in the collegiate oasis of the Chicago area (University of Chicago and Northwestern).  Is Middle America a vast wasteland when it comes to excellence in higher education?
  • Private schools dominate at the top -the only public institution in the top 20 is the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; similarly, only three California schools (Cal Tech in addition to Stanford and Pomona) in the top 20 are located  south of the 39th degree latitude; only nine of the top 50 schools are public schools, and three of them are the major U.S. military academies;
  • Bigger is not always better: 19 of the top 50 schools are small private liberal arts colleges, and several others are relatively  small schools (under 5,000 students) like Cal Tech and the military academies;
  • The top public universities have a distinctly less coastal orientation; the top 10 include such schools as the Universities of Michigan, Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin as well as coastal schools (led by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Virginia).
  • Institutional sticker prices are not terribly good proxy measures of quality. The University of Maryland, for example, is  for  most students a lot cheaper than nearby George Washington University, but ranks just as high (indeed, a little higher); SUNY Stony Brook ranks much higher than nearby Adelphi University and is less expensive.

While rankings provide good general information about the overall quality of an institution, they have limited value for students in terms of actually selecting a college. What is “good” for one person may be bad for another: magazine rankings use a “one size fits all” approach that limits the information they provide consumers. The optimal school for a student to attend depends on many things, including location, student academic potential, area of academic interest, and cost. Forbes does something neat this year: it provides a screener into which students provide certain information about themselves and then a list of colleges appears that best fits those characteristics. The move towards “do it yourself” rankings is an important advance in reducing the mismatch between students and institutions attended, a mismatch that manifests itself in a  low 55 percent six-year graduation rate.

Don’t like the rankings? Then come up with an alternative. The accrediting associations treat colleges like pregnancy -you are, or you are not. They could come up with numeric scores for colleges, which, along with cost information, would give potential students good indicators of which schools deliver the most “bang for the buck.” The IRS, could move away from harassing conservatives to providing reliable income data on college graduates, a matter of prime student interest. The College Board, working with the colleges, could come up with a national entrance/exit exam that would provide measures of collegiate “value added” knowledge, which could be used with other instruments like the Critical Learning Assessment measuring critical thinking and writing skills. In short, provide information allowing competition with the magazine rankings. My prediction: this will not happen, so Bob Morse of US News and I will be assessing colleges until senility, death, or the changing economics of journalism does us in.

UPDATE: A Forbes story explains the absence of four schools from its rankings. 


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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