Hate to Pop Your Bubble, Virginia, But…

It’s an article of faith, repeatedly endlessly by leaders in Virginia’s higher-ed establishment, that Virginia has one of the best systems of public education in the country, if not the best. There is some justification for the high esteem in which Virginia institutions hold themselves. W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, cites US News & World-Report rankings in an op-ed published today (see “Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development“) to make the case that collectively speaking Virginia’s colleges are the best.

But US News & World-Report is not the only group publishing college rankings. Using a different methodology, The Wall Street Journal rolled out its own “U.S. College Rankings” today. The results are a real come-down. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, ranks 26th nationally under the U.S. News approach. By the WSJ‘s reckoning, it ranks 50th! The College of William & Mary gets demoted from 32nd to 82nd, Virginia Tech from 69th to 134th, Virginia Commonwealth University from 171st to 458th, and George Mason from 140th to 260th. Yikes!

I’m not suggesting that the WSJ methodology is more valid than U.S. News‘. As the WSJ notes on methodology make clear, rankings depend upon what you measure, and what weights you assign to those measures. Among other factors, the WSJ measures racial, ethnic and financial diversity. That certainly is a factor to consider in evaluating an institution from a social justice perspective, but does it reflect the quality of instruction? Debatable.

None of the rankings incorporate the measure that I think is most important — cognitive value added, or gains in a student’s ability to read, write, and speak critically, analytically and clearly. We don’t have the capacity to measure that now, so from personal perspective I’m not sure how useful any rankings are.

Speaking of critical, analytical thinking, Virginia’s business, civic and political leaders need to engage in some. Instead of repeating the conventional wisdom, we need to ask dispassionately, are our public colleges and universities as great as we think they are? If they are, they arguably merit greater state financial support with fewer strings attached. If they aren’t — if the higher-ed model isn’t working as well as we’d like in Virginia — perhaps the system cries out for restructuring and reform. As we gear up for another big debate about the state’s role in higher education, we cannot duck these issues.

Update: The original post was based upon last year’s WSJ rankings. I have updated the chart and the text to reflect the 2018 rankings. Hat tip: LocalGovGuy.

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16 responses to “Hate to Pop Your Bubble, Virginia, But…

  1. U.Va. 50 (+6)
    W&M 82 (+18)
    Virginia Tech 134 (-11)
    VMI 206 (-12)
    George Mason 260 (+14)
    VCU 458 (-52)
    JMU 372 (+37)

  2. Thank you for the link, because the WSJ page was blocked by the pay wall (I may have to break down and pay that one…)

    I don’t think much about these rankings in any form, but looking at this it does not really disprove the argument that as a whole, as a public system, Virginia’s ranks very well. The UC system does, as well, and perhaps NC. You can pick lots of variables and get lots of results.

    ‘Tis the season for people to lobby for new money in the new 2-year budget, which is now being drafted over in the various state office buildings. The pitch these days is always jobs and economic development. I greatly admire some of the people behind this effort, Gil Minor and Dennis Treacy especially, but I have few illusions that a massive infusion of state funding is coming and the schools – like every other business in this country – need to double down on efforts to get the job done with the resources they have. As with transportation, which makes the same “we are about jobs” pitch – the needs will NEVER equal the means. And as with transportation and other businesses, innovation is rapidly moving the goal lines and changing the customer interaction. Demand is elastic, folks, the price cannot go up at the same rate another decade or two.

  3. Here’s an even better rank list of “affordable” Higher Ed – and there are no Virginia colleges in this group

    ” Affordable Four-Year Schools with Good Outcomes:

    These four-year public colleges offer their students an affordable higher education, with relatively high salaries. As students weigh the costs and benefits of higher education, it’s especially important to find schools that can offer them the best possible outcomes. For students looking for a high return on investment, these institutions may offer good opportunities.

    California State Polytechnic University-Pomona $11,085
    California State University-East Bay $10,340
    CUNY Bernard M Baruch College $6,841
    CUNY Queens College $5,998
    Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus $10,994
    Iowa State University $14,100
    New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology $11,451
    San Diego State University $12,567
    San Jose State University $12,862
    Stony Brook University $13,519
    Texas A & M University-College Station $11,315
    The University of Texas at Dallas $12,050
    United States Merchant Marine Academy $5,538
    University of Baltimore $14,180
    University of California-Berkeley $13,707
    University of California-Irvine $12,771
    University of California-Los Angeles $13,399
    University of California-San Diego $14,136
    University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus $13,774
    University of Florida $11,778
    University of Houston $13,028
    University of Illinois at Chicago $13,811
    University of Maryland-University College $10,558
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $13,243
    University of Utah $13,874
    University of Washington-Seattle Campus $13,566


  4. Useful. So Chapel Hill one third the cost of UVA or W&M roughly…..

  5. Virginia has a very good system of public colleges and universities by most standards. Much of it came about through highly selective admissions..which came about with the Post WWII baby boom. And, the highly selective mode works well for say U.Va. for they can charge more than cost to out of state students to help balance the budget.
    We were late with the CCs in Virginia and our CCs were originally more transfer oriented than occupational. SC and NC among others were ahead of Va and named their two year institutions Community/Technical colleges.
    Generally, Virginia matches well with NC but they have held the costs down and put a cap on out of state students which gives U.VA a higher national profile in many circles. But NC institutions do dramatic more research than do Virginia institutions in part because of Duke and WF but NCSU and UNC out do VT and U.Va. As a result they have far more patents than we do per 100 population…a factor for many companies looking to find a state in which to locate. Virginia is 30th in the nation in patents per 100 population.
    And, that could be a critical factor as we compete for jobs in the 21st Century economy and as Fed spending wanes. But in terms of getting a good college education Virginia is well above average.
    PS Did you know that Duke was once a branch of RMC. After the Civil War the VA Methodists decided to move RMC to Ashland and the NC Methodists took their half to Durham and founded Trinity College which became Duke University. Similar story for WF. (Randolph is a Virginia name and Macon was NC or so I was told.)

  6. When I was teaching in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Delaware, a representative from DuPont said that there is more variation among students than among colleges. He didn’t care if the student was a Delaware graduate or an MIT graduate. He judged by the student. High-IQ students that perform well can be found in any college.

    • I might make exceptions for MIT, Berkeley, CalTech, and Stanford for engineering schools…they really are on a different plane in terms of their faculty and resources. Plus, their locations do provide for better chances at intern/externships with some amazing employers. But engineering schools after that? Eh, none of them are truly world class. I don’t think there’s a wafer’s worth of difference between a top 20% of his class Cornell engineer and a top 20% of his class Virginia Tech engineer.

  7. There are a LOT of choices for College including top notch ones at affordable prices..

    What people want is a Cadillac at a Chevy price…

    College has got DANGED expensive.. no question about it… and some folks tell their kids they better work their butts off and get a scholarship …. or be prepared to get a job and go to school when they’re not working.

    Novel Concept…

  8. There has been a proliferation of rankings, but I don’t think anything has threatened USNews as the gold standard for prestige. The others are largely noise in the greater scheme of things.

    If the rankings factor in diversity or list price, Virginia institutions will rank lower. UVA, W&M, VT, and JMU have comparatively very low percentages of students on Pell Grants. They are much lower than schools in the UC System, for instance. Tuition is also relatively high.

    There are more rankings that include “outcomes” these days, but these can show a view distorted by the mix of majors of graduates. Engineering graduates, for instance, make about 1.6X as much as average undergraduates during the first part of their career. So school A with a large engineering program may appear “better” than school B, with no engineering. But the typical Econ grad at B may do significantly better than the typical Econ grad at school A. Reports like this one from Georgetown adjust for mix of majors: https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/college-rankings/

  9. Actually the one I posted upthread was from the Govt Dept of Education – College Scorecard… which used more objective metrics:

    ” These data include only public institutions identified as predominantly four-year institutions by the College Scorecard. In addition, calculations exclude institutions with fewer than 500 undergraduate degree-seeking students enrolled. The list is constructed of the remaining public four-year institutions that fall in the top 25 percent of all predominantly four-year institutions for median earnings 10 years after beginning enrollment and for low net price. Typical earnings reflect the median earnings of federal financial aid recipients 10 years after they first enrolled at the institution. Net price reflects the sticker price, less any grant or scholarship aid, for all federal financial aid recipients at the school. Percentile calculations are derived using institutions’ Unitid as the unit of analysis. List includes only institutions also featured in College Navigator and excludes institutions that are not main campus locations.”

    so – a pretty basic criteria… without getting into the “prestige” thing or other indirect metrics.

    this one basically is bang-for-the-buck… tuition costs vs salary after graduation.. One can CHOOSE to make it a more complicated process if what you want is something more than cost versus ROI.

  10. The mix of majors can heavily influence the institutional results. For example the top 25% of education majors will earn only as much as the bottom 25% of engineering majors. So a school with a higher percentage of engineering majors will tend to do better in career earnings than one with a higher percentage of humanities majors, all other things being equal. But the choice of major would be the real differentiating factor.

    Most of these studies are using government data, they are just doing some additional calculations.

  11. Virginia has several good to very good engineering schools (VT, VMI, UVa, GMU, ODU) but the questions are access/affordability/and impact on economic development. The later part of the 20th century economic explosion in Silicon Valley, Boston etc was driven by engineering schools and those centers and many emerging centers around the county will be drivers of the 21st Century economy and the question is how can we compete?

  12. There are a number of dimensions to evaluating a higher ed system:

    On quality and choice, I think Virginia is pretty strong compared to other states.
    On access and affordability, not so positive. The state system is relatively expensive and UVA, VT, JMU, and W&M are, compared to the UC System for instance, much more highly represented by the upper middle class, so they are probably doing less to promote economic mobility.
    On higher ed’s impact on economic development impact, I think Virginia’s system has lagged the top performers because it hasn’t contributed to the development of “centers” or clusters as jwgilley commented.

  13. The WSJ published its 2018 rankings this morning. UVA returns to #56. http://www.wsj.com/graphics/college-rankings-2018-tool/ You may need to get around the paywall to see the new numbers.

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