Forbes gets practical with return-on-investment college rankings

Forbes' best colleges lists have become increasingly popular.
Forbes’ best colleges lists have become increasingly popular.

Forbes magazine recently released its list of “25 Colleges with the Best Return on Investment,” a prelude to its annual “America’s Top Colleges” list.

Since they released their first college rankings in 2008, Forbes’ lists have become increasingly popular among students and parents and, in turn, coveted by colleges. But Forbes actually has very little to do with the creation of the lists or the methodology behind them.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity – a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank – creates the rankings for Forbes. The group generally advocates for market-based solutions to problems in higher education, and their rankings were developed in part to emphasize the student’s role as a consumer.

“The U.S. News [and World Report college ranking] relies more on reputation. A fairly large component of their index is based on questionnaires with leaders of institutions,” says Richard Vedder, the director of CCAP. “We wanted to be more student-centered than other rankings. We’re interested in whether students feel the courses they’re taking are interesting. Do they get jobs after graduation? What kind of money do they make? Do they obtain positions of high responsibility in our society? What’s the debt load they incur?”

The 2013 ROI list will be most valuable for prospective STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students, but may be less applicable in other fields. In terms of a baseline calculation of tuition dollars vs. starting salary, not many fields can compete with STEM. The Top 10 colleges are all either technical or engineering schools.

“I don’t know that this list is more valuable than the other ones out there. It’s just one more piece of information,” says Susan Adams, a reporter at Forbes. “What distinguishes this one is that it looks at one particular factor: return on investment. It wasn’t surprising to me that the schools at the top of the list were heavy on engineering and technical education.”


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