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The Wall Street Journal’s College Rankings Prioritize Results Over Reputation

    Hey, check this out – there’s another college ranking! This one’s from The Wall Street Journal, and they started doing it in 2016.

    The Wall Street Journal has unveiled its 2024 “Top U.S. Colleges” list. These rankings put a spotlight on student results, the quality of the learning environment, and inclusivity.

    A major focus is on “value-added,” which means how much a college helps its students succeed. Each college gets an overall rating, along with scores that reflect the student experience, how it affects graduates’ salaries and its impact on social mobility.

    Just like the leading U.S. News & World Report rankings, The Wall Street Journal used to pay a lot of attention to factors like a college’s wealth and reputation. These measures tend to stay the same year after year, favoring well-known institutions and overlooking lesser-known but excellent ones.

    However, for its 2024 “Best Colleges in the U.S.” rankings, The Wall Street Journal has shifted its focus. They now place greater importance on student experiences and outcomes, including graduation rates, salaries after graduation, and social mobility. This change aligns with the recently published Washington Monthly college rankings, which also emphasize how much a college helps its students succeed.

    After crunching all the numbers carefully, the results reveal both familiar names at the top and some surprising newcomers.

    The Wall Street Journal's College Rankings
    The Wall Street Journal’s College Rankings

    How the Wall Street Journal Ranks Colleges

    The Wall Street Journal’s college rankings include a specific set of criteria and methods:

    • Inclusion Criteria: The Journal ranks 400 colleges that meet certain criteria. These colleges must offer bachelor’s degrees, have an enrollment of over 900 students, and should not be insolvent or for-profit. The Journal also requires at least 50 survey responses from students and recent alumni for a college to be considered.
    • Exclusion of Service Academies: Service academies like West Point and Annapolis are not part of this ranking.
    • Data Sources: The Journal collaborates with research partners College Pulse and Statista. They rely on publicly available data and survey results and do not depend on colleges to submit information. This approach is taken to avoid issues associated with boycott movements against other college rankings and the increasing number of colleges refusing to participate.
    • Weighted Factors: After narrowing down the list to 400 institutions, the Journal assesses colleges based on three main factors, each with its own weight in the ranking:
    • Student Outcomes (70%): This factor is the most heavily weighted. It measures how much a college helps its graduates increase their earnings beyond what might be expected. Statistical modeling is used to estimate expected median earnings based on the college’s demographics and compares this with actual earnings. Colleges are rewarded for surpassing these expectations. Other aspects include the number of years it takes to pay off the net price of attending college and graduation rates compared to similar institutions.
    • Learning Environment (20%): This factor considers the quality of teaching, faculty interactions, career preparation, facilities, and overall student satisfaction. Data for this component comes from student surveys.
    • Diversity (10%): The Journal evaluates diversity based on multiple factors, including ethnic diversity, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients, enrollment of students with disabilities, international student enrollment, and survey responses about opportunities for interaction with students from diverse backgrounds.

    These criteria and methods help The Wall Street Journal produce rankings that emphasize student outcomes and experiences while considering diversity and other important factors.

    Comparing The Wall Street Journal Rankings to U.S. News: Unveiling Surprising College Standings

    If you’ve noticed some similarities between The Wall Street Journal’s rankings and those from U.S. News, you’re absolutely right. However, there’s a notable difference – The Journal combines large universities and small liberal arts colleges, allowing for a direct comparison. In contrast, U.S. News separates institutions into different categories.

    Beyond the dominance of Ivy-Plus institutions at the top, The Journal’s rankings provide some intriguing surprises. For instance, Dartmouth College secures the 21st spot, with Cornell University closely behind at 24th. Surprisingly, Brown University finds itself at a relatively lower position, coming in at 67th due to comparatively lower salaries for its graduates and a higher net price when compared to other Ivy League peers.

    Brown’s struggles don’t end there; it also fares poorly in the Washington Monthly rankings, landing at the 43rd spot due to a lack of low-income students and particularly low ratings for public and national service.

    However, Brown’s situation seems promising when compared to other universities. Johns Hopkins University ranks 99th, New York University takes the 166th spot, and Tufts University lags at 287th.

    If you’re considering California Institute of Technology, renowned as one of the country’s top scientific universities, you might be surprised to know that The Journal suggests considering Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in New Jersey instead, as it edges out Caltech by one spot, landing at 17th and 18th place, respectively.

    Furthermore, the rankings might raise eyebrows among students at the University of Washington in Seattle, as the Tacoma satellite campus claims the 93rd position, outranking the flagship campus at 134th.

    Among the top 20, only two public universities make the cut: the University of Florida at 15th place and the New Jersey Institute of Technology at 19th. Florida International University also earns a noteworthy spot at 29th, primarily due to its high percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and its graduates’ strong job market performance.


    Top 10 Colleges

    1. Princeton University
    2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    3. Yale University
    4. Stanford University
    5. Columbia University
    6. Harvard University
    7. Amherst College
    8. Babson College
    9. University of Pennsylvania
    10. Claremont McKenna College

    Ranking Student Experience, Salary Impact, and Social Mobility

    Aside from its main ranking, The Wall Street Journal provides special lists that focus on the student experience, salary impact, and social mobility.

    Student Experience Ranking: This ranking, determined by student surveys, takes into account factors like campus facilities (such as housing and food), social life (including support services and safety), and diversity. The top five institutions in this category are:

    Dalton State College
    California Baptist University
    University of Houston-Downtown
    Savannah State University
    Alcorn State University

    Salary Impact Ranking: This ranking assesses the data used to calculate the “outcomes” score, with a 67% emphasis on salary impact compared to similar colleges and a 33% emphasis on the number of years required to pay off the net price. The colleges that perform best in this category are:

    University of Pennsylvania
    Princeton University
    Columbia University
    MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    Harvard University

    Social Mobility Ranking: This ranking recognizes institutions that admit a high percentage of low-income students, maintain low net costs, and achieve high graduation rates and graduate salaries. The colleges excelling in these aspects include:

    • California State University-Los Angeles
    • University of California-Merced
    • Berea College
    • Fresno Pacific University
    • California State University-Northridge

    Colleges can land in different positions on various lists, and let’s take Princeton as an example. While it claims the top spot in the overall rankings and secures the second position for salary impact, it ranks at a modest #58 for the student experience and #76 for social mobility. Does this mean Princeton students are somehow less satisfied with their overall college experience compared to institutions higher up on the student experience scale? The social mobility ranking also raises questions, considering the low net cost, high earnings, and the fact that nearly a quarter of the class of 2023 (24%) were Pell Grant recipients.

    It’s always intriguing to tinker with criteria and see how colleges fare in different aspects. Will these rankings significantly influence students’ decisions? Probably not. Brown University will likely continue to receive a flood of 30 applications for every available spot, and Caltech’s faculty can ponder their ranking while proudly displaying their Nobel Prize medals.

    Nevertheless, shedding light on lesser-known institutions based on criteria that genuinely matter to students is a commendable endeavor. For this reason alone, The Wall Street Journal deserves recognition for its efforts.