The annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are extremely useful and interesting, but not exactly because of the rankings themselves.
The rankings do not so much answer questions as raise them. Why did a college or university with a strong academic reputation and grad rates not do better? Why did another college with a weak academic reputation and so-so grad rates do so well? How much does class size matter?
Of course the rankings also provide great and useful stats about the questions raised above and about the test score ranges and high school GPA’s of enrolled students.
But when it comes to the rankings, what should matter most are grad and retention rates, class sizes, academic reputation, and, most problematically, the financial resources of colleges. The last should not be counted because it is the “input” factor for the other things measured as “outputs” and therefore only magnifies the impact of money.
The table below shows how the impact of “financial resources” can have such an impact on rankings. Only the College of William and Mary seems invulnerable to the typically damaging impact of low financial resources. The main reason is high grad rates, the 4th highest percentage (among top publics) of classes with 20 or fewer students, and the lowest percentage of classes with 50 or more students. Of course, William and Mary is, by far, the smallest of the leading publics.
The University of Washington has the most puzzling combination: a financial resources ranking significantly higher than the ranking of the school. For a while now, the numbers for UW have looked odd to us, although the school itself is at least on a par with Wisconsin, Illinois, and UT Austin.
UT Austin is a more typical case. The university is penalized not only for having relatively low financial resources (per student) but also because the resulting outputs (especially class sizes) are well below the mean. That UT Austin is too large to be ranked in proportion to its academic reputation may be the fault of the powers that be in Texas; but that it is penalized as well because of the low score in financial resources is, in effect, a double whammy.
The other side of the coin, so to speak, is that magnifying the wealth metric is a built-in boost to many private universities. Most public universities, however, do relatively well only in spite of the magnification of the wealth factor.
Because of the width of the table, readers will need to scroll horizontally to see the last one or two columns. If you want to track a single school while scrolling, just select the entire row and then scroll.