The White House just released a controversial scorecard system for the nation’s colleges, leveraging aggregated tax income data to rank colleges by how much graduates actually earn.
After digging through public dataset, two things are immediately apparent. First, the household name colleges are not necessarily the best economic choices (smaller polytechnical schools often outrank the Harvards and Stanfords of the world). Two, the White House released this ranking based on very incomplete data in order to incentivize colleges to fix errors by releasing information that they previously fought to keep secret.
According to the White House scorecard, the best colleges for a computer information degree, when ranked by “salary after attending” are as follows:
- MIT: $91,000
- Harvard: $87,000
- University of the Sciences: $85,000
- Georgetown: $83,000
- Stevens Institute of Technology: $82,000
Things get even less conventional when comparing colleges by earnings for an engineering degree. SUNY Downstate Medical Center ranks the highest ($121,000), followed by MIT ($91,000). Stanford barely makes the top 10, ranking no. 9, with engineering majors earning $80,000.
The White House’s system is similar to other scorecards that have also ranked colleges based on graduate earnings. Salary database startup Payscale finds that Harvey Mudd, Caltech, and Stevens Institute of Technology are the three top universities. On their score, Harvard doesn’t even crack the top 10.
For tech companies looking to hire the best grads, this means a household name university maybe shouldn’t be a priority.
Perhaps the more interesting story is the approach the White House has taken in releasing the data. Immediately, major college trade organizations denounced the rankings. For years, many higher education groups have resisted releasing data; some have even gone as far as saying that colleges should not be measured based on graduate earnings at all.
Now that the White House has released the raw data, it’s understandable why many are skeptical of the rankings. They’re based on a very biased sample of the population. For the most part, it includes only students whose earnings and college choices the government could track, which excludes many students who never had to ask the government for a loan.
The raw data file itself is missing tons of data. Many colleges simply list “Privacy Suppressed” as a value on their students’ college debt and other important metrics. Additionally, commenters in a Wall Street Journal story noted that schools with large graduate programs may also have artificially low rankings, since students who spend the time to get a Ph.D. will necessarily have lower earnings over a 10-year period. This could be why some household name schools rank so low.
But this odd outcome will be intentional: The only way for a college to fix its ranking is to voluntarily release more data. In other words, the White House has approached its college scorecard with a “kick the hornet’s nest” strategy. The White House releases a half-complete ranking that embarrasses a lot of big-name colleges who have resisted releasing data to the public.
Now colleges have an incentive to fix their public rankings by playing the White House’s game. It’s an aggressive strategy, but one that may just work.