In early August Forbes, the famed business publication, released its tenth annual ranking of America’s top colleges. This year Yeshiva University cracked the top 100, clocking in at number 75 out of a total of 650 colleges judged nationwide. The Forbes list claims to be the “Capitalist’s tool”; acknowledging that students and their families invest a considerable–and growing–amount of money into their college degree, it sets out to measure a college’s return on investment. In short, their lists claims to determine whether what a student puts into her bachelor’s education is commensurate to what she gets out of it. A college’s rank is based on an aggregate score of school’s rating in five categories: graduation success rate, academic success rate, student debt, student experience, and graduation rate.
YU’s notably high score is a pleasant surprise considering it had been on a downward spiral on the Forbes since it’s peak in 2014. That year YU placed fourth on a list of “Top Ten Colleges to Watch,” having risen 334 ranks since Forbes’ 2009 list, from 452nd to 118th. However YU proceeded to fall back to 209th in 2015 and then rise only slightly to 195th in 2016. What’s more, the 2017 rise stands in contrast YU’s fall in recent years from its coveted spot in the top 50 Best Colleges according the the U.S. News and World Report, long considered the gold standard in college rankings, to a more humble ranking of 66th. YU’s dramatic upswing in the Forbes ranking this year may be do to the changes Forbes has made to its ranking system from year to year, which, although largely undramatic overall, can still impact a school’s ranking.
In unpacking the Forbes ranking it becomes clearer how YU may have achieved such high marks. The Forbes ranking system is based on methodology driven by output, or what a school gives students for the monetary investment they put in. It thus logically follows that the post graduation success rate of students stands as the majority, a full 35%, of a school’s total score. “Success” as defined by Forbes is based on two clear cut measures – high salary in early and long term earnings, and dominance in the chosen field. Since Forbes recognizes that the liberal arts and certain STEM fields require a great deal of post-BA education to achieve success, they have devoted another 12.5% of the score to academic success, measured by the percentage of the student body that obtains PhDs and by the number of students who have received prestigious academic recognitions like the Fulbright award.
Critics of the Forbes ranking point first and foremost to the focus on monetary success as a skewed measure of a successful college – especially since many individuals may choose less lucrative fields like education or nonprofit work in which they can certainly succeed, just not by the salary-focused measure of Forbes. This system favors schools whose students go into high earning fields like business, corporate law, and investment banking. This standard favors a school like YU, which currently has more students enrolled in Syms than in Yeshiva College. YU also benefits in this measure because of its large base of alumni in these lucrative fields who can provide students with connections and help them secure good positions. In fact a number of students themselves are likely to enter into YU with these sort of connections under their belt. And while the ranking tries in some way to correct for its favoring of non-liberal arts fields by its academic success measure, that factor is still worth only slightly more than half of what the graduate’s salary factor is worth.
Driven by the premise that burdensome debt can greatly detract from the a student’s ability to succeed post graduation, Forbes makes student debt another 20% of a college’s overall score. This is based off of data from the percentage of students at a school who take out federal loans and the school’s student loan default rate.
In the run down of their methodology Forbes acknowledges that this measure can unfairly favor schools with a wealthy student body because they would naturally have a lower percentage of students in need of federal assistance. However they defend their choice to maintain this factor as a low percentage of students on federal aid can also indicate a school’s affordability and willingness to give scholarships. From a random sampling of colleges on the list it seems that although the percentage of student who received federal loans at YU, 27%, was on the higher end it was not highly out of the ordinary, seemingly indicating that YU’s student debt score was not skewed by a wealthy population. However a wealthy student body can still affect the size of a federal loan, making them smaller and thus easier to repay. Although at the same time, in the breakdown of student grants and loans YU did have an unusually high 82% of students receiving institutional aid, averaging $24,705. Due to sizable institutional help, students may only need to take out smaller federal loans which are easier to pay back and contribute to a lower student loan default rate.
Another 20% is based on student experience, an addition most likely added after their earlier ranking methodology was criticized for ignoring student life and satisfaction while on campus. 15% of this category is based of off a school’s freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, a safe indicator if students like what they signed up for, and one in which YU holds up well with a 94% retention rate–15% higher than the national average. Another 5% is based off of data from Niche, a site that gathers millions of student reviews and poll responses and analyzes them to create their own rankings. Forbes focused on a college’s rank in Niche’s lists of “2017 Colleges with the Best Professors” and “2017 Colleges with the Best Student Life.” While this was a pretty miniscule percentage of the overall score it is still interesting to note that YU actually placed a whopping 20th out of 1,602 colleges in the first ranking and a much more lowly 503rd out of 1,373 colleges in the second ranking.
The final 12.5% of the composite score is taken from the school’s graduation rate. School’s are awarded in this category for keeping students on track to graduate within the standard four years. For the first time since its inception the ranking also awards a small percentage to a schools for a healthy six year graduation rate. The national average for six year graduation at a private, not-for-profit schools is 71.5%. YU bests that with a 59% four year graduation rate and a 85% six year graduation rate.
When these five factors are considered YU holds up rather well as a return on investment as the 75th best college in America. But even as Forbes’ rankings focuses aggressively on the monetary bottom line, a second Forbes college ranking may make YU students see their institution in a different light. Forbes created an additional ranking to measure a college’s return on investment – the Forbes Grateful Graduates Index. The list ranks 200 private, not-for-profit colleges with more than 1,0000 students by assessing the median private donation per student over ten years and the percentage of graduates to donate money to their college each year. The premise of the list is that a school that produces good outputs for students will create happy and appreciative graduates who want to show their thanks by giving back. Although YU is often seen as a place where anyone can complain about anything, it actually ranks 85th in grateful graduates. The percentage of graduates who donate each year is only 9.4% but the median private donation over ten years is $12,164.
The way Forbes sees the world everything is a business. If that is true, then–at least according to these rankings–not only are YU alums smart customers, but YU itself is also a smart business that keeps its customers satisfied and coming back for more.