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Ivy League schools hate these college rankings

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
President Barack Obama yells "Zot! Zot! Zot!" to honor the school mascot, the anteater, as he attends the commencement ceremony for the University of California, Irvine at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, California June 14, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The luckiest teenagers pick a college based on prestige. But many others who can’t afford prestige simply want the best return on their education dollar -- something that can be maddeningly hard to figure out.

A company called CollegeNet is trying to change that by ranking more than 900 colleges and universities based on how well they improve economic mobility and provide affordable education to disadvantaged families. Virtually none of the top 50 in this “social mobility index” are name-brand schools such as Harvard, Yale, Virginia, Notre Dame or Stanford. Instead, there are names such as City University of New York, Prairie View A&M, Winston-Salem State and Montana Tech.

Many of the top entrants in the social-mobility index are regional public schools. Average tuition for the top 50 is $9,833, compared with $31,231 at a private university. The typical student earns about $49,000 within a few years of graduating, which is close to the median income for all families.

Here’s a list of the top 10 schools in CollegeNet’s social-mobility index, along with the rankings assigned to the same schools by another prominent college ranker, U.S. News & World Report:

  

Ivies and other schools that routinely show up at the top of the U.S. News rankings bomb the CollegeNet analysis. Here’s how the top 5 U.S. News schools rank on the CollegeNet scale:

 

(The complete CollegeNet rankings are here.)

The CollegeNet rankings, in their second year, arrive as higher ed has become a contentious issue mired in political controversy. College has long been regarded as a pathway to self-improvement and a middle-class lifestyle—until recently. An explosion of student debt during the last decade has left many recent grads financially under water at a time when good job prospects for young workers are more scarce than during their parents’ generation. Some experts think higher ed is exacerbating income inequality instead of improving it, because wealthier families tend to get the most out of it while poorer families find skyrocketing costs unaffordable.

The CollegeNet rankings highlight schools with modest tuition that attract students from families with relatively low incomes. Other factors are the school’s graduation rate, the starting pay of grads, and the size of the school’s endowment. Because schools that rank high on CollegeNet’s scale tend to draw students at higher risk of dropping out, graduation rates for top-ranked schools are lower than at the top of other college lists. But students able to stick it out at these schools are in good position to score decent jobs, without the huge debt overhang some students at pricey private schools end up with.

For all the controversy over college costs, education remains a more likely ticket to prosperity than mostly anything else, which is why President Obama this year proposed a new plan to fund two years of free community college for students “willing to work for it.” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants to make college tuition free at public universities and slash the interest rate on student loans needed to pay other college expenses. Sanders’ rival Hillary Clinton also wants to lower the cost of college, though she’d do it through a combination of higher state spending, federal incentives and other details not yet explained.

It could be years, of course, before Washington does anything to help make college more affordable. But families can do a lot on their own to make sure education funds are spent wisely, which is why various types of rankings have become an industry of their own. In addition to the U.S. News and CollegeNet rankings, there’s now a Washington Monthly best-bang-for-the-buck guide, a similar guide from Money, and a “college scorecard” published by the Department of Education. Study up.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.