America's Best Schools: A College Rankings Duel

If you look at the just-released college rankings from Forbes Magazine, you’ll notice some peculiar numbers.

Forbes ranks Cornell as the 105th best school in the country, but U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the 14th best national university. Forbes rates Dartmouth and the University of Pennslyvania as the 98th and 83rd  best schools, but US News college rankings places them among the top 10 institutions.

If you compare the Forbes and US News college rankings you’ll find lots of other seemingly strange numbers. In Forbes’ rankings, you’ll spot lots of obscure colleges scoring better than  high-and-mighty universities. DePauw University (42), Hampden-Sydney College (54), Wabash College (32) and Salem College (67) beat out Duke (104), Johns Hopkins (174), University of California-Berkeley (73) and Brown University (72).

Ever heard of Centre College in Kentucky? Forbes calls its the 14th best school in the country. It handily beats Georgetown (106), the University of Virginia (64) and the University of Texas (174).

The Forbes numbers, however, aren’t crazy. In fact, I’d argue that they are much more realistic than the extremely popular US News college rankings. (FYI, the latest US News college rankings will be released on Aug. 20.)

The motivation behind the Forbes numbers is to measure the actual education that students receive at a college or university. So the creators looked at such factors as whether students like their teachers, what sort of paycheck alumni earn and how many of them graduate in four years.

In contrast, the biggest criteria that US News uses in its rankings is the general reputation of schools. Every year the magazine sends three questionnaires to school administrators across the country and asks them to rate each school in their respective category such as national universities, liberal arts colleges etc. There’s an obvious flaw in relying on this method. What does a college provost in California or Pennsylvania know about a school in Georgia or Maine? Of course, not much.

I believe rankings should only serve as a starting point when families are looking at colleges, but I’d have a heck of a lot more confidence relying on the Forbes’ rankings.

Further reading:
You can learn more about evaluating schools by reading my book, The College Solution. Also, check out the college rankings piece I wrote for CBSMoneyWatch.com.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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