Some Nuances of Comparing Colleges

Last spring I was hired by a family with a singular purpose in mind: comparing the relative merits of the four colleges where their son had been accepted and offered varying amounts of scholarship money.  I was delighted with the assignment, for my specialization as a university administrator was student retention/success; hence the only thing I love more than working closely with students and families on the college planning process is digging deeply for institutional information and parsing the meaning of all manner of numbers and rankings – including some that aren’t widely known or reported. College-bound students and their parents are smart to examine and ask questions about standard institutional “outcome” statistics, such as retention and graduation rates. However, it is important to know that the numbers don’t always tell a simple and straightforward story.

As an exemplar of the most that possibly could be hoped for in this realm, Harvard University boasts a 97% retention rate for freshmen students, and a 98% six-year graduation rate. (When did reporting norms shift from four to six year grad rates, anyway?) The Ivy League and other colleges in the highly selective tier are SO selective in the admissions process that they can be ultra-choosy among the strong pool of students who apply, guaranteeing not just across-the-board academic strengths, but additional personal characteristics that bode well for success in their particular environment.

The only college in the state of Colorado that is regarded as most selective (although not exactly comparable to the NE Ivys) is Colorado College.  CC features a 94% freshman retention rate and an 85% six-year grad rate, and doesn’t cost all that much less than Harvard with a total estimated COA of about $46K.  Two of Colorado’s more selective institutions are the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver, once again mixing apples and oranges in terms of institutional types and sizes.  CU claims 84% freshman retention and 67% six-year graduation rates, while at DU the numbers are 87% and 74% respectively, just a shade better.  However, the comparative total costs of these two institutions are radically different: nearly $47K for DU and around $19K for CU Boulder at the in-state rate.  For those for whom cost is an issue, this is serious food for thought.

Now at Metropolitan State College of Denver  (soon to be renamed Denver State University, btw) the numbers look pretty darn miserable: 66% freshman retention and 21% six-year graduation. With numbers like these, college shoppers can’t be blamed for “dissing” the extreme bargain to be found in the yearly COA of just over $4000 at the still predominantly commuter school (most students arrange for and pay their own housing costs, so this is not included in the quoted amount).  To be sure, MSCD is ranked as a less selective college, and yet the numbers can be explained in part by the school’s special mission, which is as a college of opportunity serving large numbers of adults, low income students, and students of color.  The fact that 70% of Metro students have a job, and 30% of these a full-time job, explains more about both statistics, as does that fact that many students treat the college as a stepping stone en route to another college down the road. There is a lot of excellent instruction that goes on at Metro State (I know, as I’ve taught there since 1998), and if the school could eliminate those who don’t intend to stick around from the analysis, both retention and grad rates would look a whole lot better.

There is more to be shared about the college comparison game, but I’ve written the War and Peace of college planning blogs already, sorry! BTW, the student for whom I did the analysis ended up picking a fine school, but the least of the bargains in his mix of four schools (for reasons that I completely understood), and is now a proud University of Oregon Duck: quack!

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is a comprehensive educational consultant and college planning professional with 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration forming the foundation of her practice:

College Ratings and Rankings

Lists and rankings that purport to identify the “best” colleges make me uncomfortable. One reason is that as I scan such lists I can always come up with multiple comparable schools that deserve to be included, but didn’t make the grade for some reason.

Take the popular Loren Pope book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. I’m familiar with many of the profiled schools that impressed the late Mr. Pope as he crisscrossed the nation back in the late 1990s. I worked at one of them, Denison University, in Granville, OH, for ten years. Denison is a superb school, no doubt about it, and I know many alumni who would say that their attendance did indeed change their lives.

I agree with Mr. Pope that small liberal arts colleges offer an emphasis on teaching and personalized attention that isn’t often available at large universities or even Ivy League schools. And yet, why Denison and not Whittier College in CA, why Kalamazoo College in MI and not Coe College in IA?

My dearest friend graduated from Stephens College, a private women’s college in Columbia, MO. I have visited Stephens several times with Betsy, and met many of her delightful alumnae friends. Virtually all of them cite their Stephens experience as pivotal, and all are doing interesting, worthwhile things with their lives and careers. Yet Stephens isn’t featured in Mr. Pope’s book, nor does it receive a high ranking in the most recent list of national liberal arts colleges from U.S. News and World Report.

One of the major bases for the U.S. News rankings is admission selectivity. I am interested in the yearly institutional outcomes, but more for the individual statistics assembled by the researchers than for any certitude that this is indeed a highly valid list, for the worthiness of colleges in my mind is as variable as the range of interests and learning styles of the nation’s prospective college students in any given year.

I very much agree with a quote by Richard H. Hersch, a past college president and present board member of the American Association of Colleges & Universities from a recent Southeast Education Network publication: “Higher Education is the only industry in America where we rank based on input rather than output.” Precisely!

Ahead of official rankings and standout-40 lists I would recommend building personal lists based on program strengths and alumni reviews, digging deeply into reported institutional strengths and making in-person visits whenever possible to check things out first-hand. Colleges also impress me where faculty members are involved in recruiting and wooing students and where they are accessible to prospective students. Let’s tell school stories more often and look at numbers less frequently.