Piggy bank on school books

College Rankings season is upon us once again. Money magazine started it off Monday. The Fiske Guide was published Tuesday.

Money started off the season strong with a tweak that produced some interesting results: It incorporated the Chetty data into its rankings.

The Chetty data, as you might or might not recall, were the result of a groundbreaking research project led by a Stanford professor who used millions of anonymous tax records to measure economic mobility of college graduates. It’s fascinating stuff. You can read more about it here and look at the numbers for individual colleges here.

By using the Chetty data, which is about 7 percent of a school’s overall score, Money shook up its own rankings pretty dramatically.

Here’s the top 10 for 2016: Princeton, Michigan, Harvard, Rice, Cal-Berkley and Brigham Young (tie), Amherst, Cooper Union, Virginia and Stanford.

And here’s Money’s top 10 for this year: Princeton, Baruch College (part of the City University of New York system), Michigan, Cal-Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford (tie), UC-Irvine, MIT, UC-Davis and Harvard.

On the 2017 list, Rice is 12th, Amherst is 28th, BYU is 105th and Cooper Union is 124th. Those are huge changes. The U.S. News rankings, for instance, never see that kind of churn.

As the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog points out, the Chetty data did indeed have a big impact on this year's rankings. Baruch College, No. 2 this year, would have been 30th without the Chetty data.

Grade Point is a qualified fan of the new numbers in the Money rankings: One downside of using the Chetty data in rankings like this is that it’s dated. It includes students who enrolled in college in the late 1990s and are now in their 30s. So the data, and thus the rankings, don’t capture the recent strides some colleges have made in enrolling more low-income and middle-income students.

But the Chetty data and how Money magazine used the numbers this year is a good start in helping families differentiate between the outcomes of thousands of colleges.

Or you could just as easily argue that such dramatic year-to-year changes show how daggone arbitrary college rankings are.

However you view college rankings, their use of post-graduate employment data might not be much of a game-changer after all. About a third of each school’s Money score come from outcomes — salaries, in other words, measured several different ways. But a new report from the Urban Institute suggests that high school students don’t seem to look too closely at earnings data when they pick a college.

Honestly, you shouldn't look too closely at any college rankings. They're an OK place to start a college search, but that's it.

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