Wall Street Journal College Rankings Reward Outcomes, Not Prestige

Yet another college ranking, but this time it's based on criteria that matter to students, not just signals of wealth and privilege.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on September 8, 2023
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  • The Wall Street Journal released its 2024 "Best Colleges in the U.S." rankings.
  • The rankings focus on student outcomes, the learning environment, and diversity.
  • A primary emphasis is on value-added, the contribution a college makes to a student's success.
  • Colleges receive an overall rating and scores based on student experience, salary impact, and social mobility.

Hey, look – another college ranking! This time, it's from The Wall Street Journal, which joined the rankings parade in 2016.

Like the rankings big dog, U.S. News & World Report, the Journal initially focused on criteria such as wealth and reputation, two measures that don't change much year to year and reward the usual suspects while ignoring hidden gems.

For this year's 2024 "Best Colleges in the U.S." rankings, the Journal focuses more on student experiences and outcomes, including graduation rates, salaries, and social mobility, a factor weighted significantly in the recently released Washington Monthly college rankings. Its primary emphasis is value-added, the contribution a college makes to a student's success.

After all the numbers were carefully crunched, the results revealed many familiar names at the top, along with some surprises.

How the Wall Street Journal Ranks Colleges

The Journal ranks only 400 colleges, leaving the majority of U.S. institutions on the sidelines. To make the list, a college must award baccalaureate degrees, enroll more than 900 students, and not be insolvent or for-profit. Additionally, the Journal includes only those schools for which it received at least 50 survey responses from students and recent alumni.

Service academies such as West Point and Annapolis aren't included.

Teaming with research partners College Pulse and Statista, the Journal evaluates publicly available data and survey results and doesn't rely on institutions to submit information, which, given the boycott movement surrounding U.S. News and the growing list of colleges refusing to participate in rankings, is perhaps the prudent tactic.

After culling the list of institutions down to 400, the Journal assesses colleges according to three main factors: student outcomes, which accounts for 70% of the score; the learning environment (20%); and diversity (10%).

To measure student outcomes, the Journal examines how much a college "boosts" its graduates' salaries beyond what might be expected. Using "statistical modeling," it estimates expected median earnings based on a college's demographic profiles and measures that against actual earnings. Colleges are rewarded for exceeding expectations.

Other factors considered include the number of years required to pay off the college's net price and graduation rates compared to peers.

For the learning outcomes component, the Journal relies on student survey responses related to teaching quality, faculty interactions, career preparation, facilities, and overall satisfaction.

And to arrive at a diversity score, it looks at ethnic diversity, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients, enrollment of students with disabilities and international students, and survey data related to "opportunities to interact with students from different backgrounds."

Put it all together and it generates the following top 10:

  1. Princeton University
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. Yale University
  4. Stanford University
  5. Columbia University
  6. Harvard University
  7. University of Pennsylvania
  8. Amherst College
  9. Claremont McKenna College
  10. Babson College

If you think this list appears similar to the results offered by U.S. News, you're right, except that the Journal commingles large universities and small liberal arts colleges, offering a direct comparison, while U.S. News separates institutions into different categories.

Aside from the top-heavy Ivy-Plus representation, the list offers some surprises, starting with the rest of the Ivies not reflected in the top 10. Dartmouth College lands at #21, followed closely by Cornell University at #24. But Brown University comes in at #67 thanks to its relatively low salary figures and high net price compared to Ivy peers.

Curiously, Brown also fared poorly in the Washington Monthly rankings, landing at #43 based on its lack of low-income students and its abysmally low ratings for public and national service.

But folks at Brown should be downright giddy compared to their counterparts at Johns Hopkins University, ranked #99, New York University (#166), and Tufts University (#287).

Want to attend the California Institute of Technology, generally regarded as one of the top scientific universities in the country alongside MIT? According to the Journal, you might be better off considering Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in New Jersey, which edges out Caltech by one spot (#17 and #18, respectively).

And what might University of Washington students in Seattle think when they see the Tacoma satellite campus (#93) ranked above their flagship campus (#134)?

Only two public universities crack the top 20: the University of Florida, at #15, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, at #19.

Another Florida school, Florida International University, lands at #29 in large part because almost half of its students receive Pell Grants and its graduates fare well in the job market.

Ranking Student Experience, Salary Impact, and Social Mobility

In addition to its main ranking, the Journal offers special lists related to the student experience, salary impact, and social mobility.

Its student experience ranking, based on student surveys, considers factors such as campus facilities (e.g., housing and food), social life (including support services and safety), and diversity. The top five in this regard are as follows:

  1. Dalton State College
  2. California Baptist University
  3. University of Houston-Downtown
  4. Savannah State University
  5. Alcorn State University

The salary ranking considers the data used to calculate the "outcomes" score, weighing salary impact versus similar colleges (67%) and years to pay off the net price (33%). These colleges come out on top:

  1. University of Pennsylvania
  2. Princeton University
  3. Columbia University
  4. MIT
  5. Harvard University

Finally, the social mobility ranking rewards institutions that enroll a high percentage of low-income students, keep net costs low, and have high graduation rates and graduate salaries. Faring well on these measures are:

  1. California State University-Los Angeles
  2. University of California-Merced
  3. Berea College
  4. Fresno Pacific University
  5. California State University-Northridge

Obviously, colleges can rank higher on some lists than others. Consider Princeton, for example. While it ranks first on the overall list and #2 for salary impact, it comes in at #58 for student experience and #76 for social mobility. Are Princeton students somehow underwhelmed by their overall experience, at least compared to institutions ranked higher on that measure? And the social mobility ranking seems puzzling given the low net cost and high earnings, along with the fact that almost a quarter of the class of 2023 (24%) were Pell Grant recipients.

It's always a fascinating exercise to fiddle with criteria and see how colleges stack up. Will these results influence student decisions? Probably not much. Brown will still receive 30 applications for every available spot, and Caltech faculty can stew about their ranking while polishing their Nobel Prize medals.

Yet highlighting some lesser-known institutions based on criteria that offer meaningful value to students is a laudable service. For that reason alone, the Journal deserves some credit.