WSU: A “Best Value” in a Public College?

President Elson Floyd sent a letter to alumni and staff of Washington State University expressing “pleasure” due to WSU’s “sucess” in ranking among Kiplinger’s top 100 Best Values in Public Colleges 2011. I appreciate the president’s desire to promulgate any kind of good news, but as a college-trained critical thinker, I felt obligated to look into this ranking a little bit.

Kiplinger describes their rankings: ” As colleges and universities across the U.S. struggle to maintain quality, we identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best BA for the buck.” The numerator of this “bang per buck” fraction is their “academic quality ranking”, which they describe this way:

We narrow the list to about 120 schools based on measures of academic quality — including SAT or ACT scores, admission and retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four- and six-year graduation rates, which most schools reported for the class that entered in 2003.

[ Read more: <http://www.kiplinger.com/magazine/archives/best-values-in-public-colleges-2011.html#rank> ]

Kiplinger doesn’t say what criteria they used to “narrow” the list;  perhaps they eliminated schools where the data they had wasn’t complete.

For the 120 school, the data they are using doesn’t include any direct measures of student learning outcomes. [It is fair to say that the graduation rates are direct measures of “academic” outcomes.]  Their indirect measures may or may not be measures of academic quality:

  1. SAT or ACT scores: a measure of the intellectual qualifications of fellow students. Probably significant for many students, especially in the traditional age group.
  2. admission rate: The ratio of applications accepted to applications made, a measure of selectivity. The factors impacting the denominator may not be academic-quality issues (e.g., home-state “safety school”).
  3. retention rate: A measure primarily of student satisfaction, along with other factors (e.g., low SES may cause more dropouts).
  4. student-faculty ratios: but how many of the “faculty” are actually engaged with students (even if they are engaged in instruction)? This stat is easily gamed.
  5. four- and six-year graduation rates: The relationship of graduation to education is taken for granted here. Since more than half of today’s college students attend more than one college in their career, and there is no student unit record system to track their path, it’s hard to know how much contribution any given institution has to student success in graduating.

Given Kiplinger’s financial bent, I would expect them to rank the “value” of attending an institution based on the estimated increase in lifetime earnings divided by the cost of attending, perhaps weighted by time of attendance.  Preparation of such and estimate might lack predictive credibility unless the students were at least several years post-college, but that approach would make the data somewhat… dated.

Also note that the University of Washington ranks 10th in “value” if paying in-state tuition and 20th if paying out-of-state tuition; Evergreen State College is 53rd and 57th, respectively; Western Washington University is 56th and 53rd; and Washington State University is 98th and 88th, out of a field of 120. Some clues to the academic quality element of the institutions’ relative positions may be found in this data listed by Kiplinger (click on the university name):

U. of Washington Evergreen State College, Olympia Western Washington U. Washington State U.
Ranking: 10 / 20 Ranking: 53 / 57 Ranking: 56 / 53 Ranking: 98 / 88
ACADEMIC QUALITY ACADEMIC QUALITY ACADEMIC QUALITY ACADEMIC QUALITY
Applicants who took SAT:

90%
Applicants who took SAT:

78%
Applicants who took SAT:

94%
Applicants who took SAT:

92%
Applicants who took ACT:

28%
Applicants who took ACT:

30%
Applicants who took ACT:

25%
Applicants who took ACT:

26%
SAT I Verbal score 600-699:

36%
SAT I Verbal score 600-699:

34%
SAT I Verbal score 600-699:

29%
SAT I Verbal score 600-699:

19%
SAT I Verbal score 700+:

12%
SAT I Verbal score 700+:

8%
SAT I Verbal score 700+:

6%
SAT I Verbal score 700+:

4%
SAT I Verbal score 600+:

48%
SAT I Verbal score 600+:

42%
SAT I Verbal score 600+:

35%
SAT I Verbal score 600+:

22%
SAT I Math score 600-699:

46%
SAT I Math score 600-699:

21%
SAT I Math score 600-699:

30%
SAT I Math score 600-699:

26%
SAT I Math score 700+:

21%
SAT I Math score 700+:

3%
SAT I Math score 700+:

3%
SAT I Math score 700+:

4%
SAT I Math score 600+:

67%
SAT I Math score 600+:

24%
SAT I Math score 600+:

32%
SAT I Math score 600+:

30%
ACT score 24-29:

53%
ACT score 24-29:

45%
ACT score 24-29:

48%
ACT score 24-29:

41%
ACT score 30-36:

26%
ACT score 30-36:

6%
ACT score 30-36:

9%
ACT score 30-36:

6%
ACT score 24+:

79%
ACT score 24+:

51%
ACT score 24+:

57%
ACT score 24+:

47%
Students applied:

21,268
Students applied:

1,769
Students applied:

9,620
Students applied:

12,478
Students admitted:

12,264
Students admitted:

1,687
Students admitted:

6,990
Students admitted:

9,489
Admission rate:

58%
Admission rate:

95%
Admission rate:

73%
Admission rate:

76%
Students per faculty:

12
Students per faculty:

23
Students per faculty:

19
Students per faculty:

15
4-year graduation rate:

54%
4-year graduation rate:

51%
4-year graduation rate:

36%
4-year graduation rate:

40%
6-year graduation rate:

81%
6-year graduation rate:

63%
6-year graduation rate:

69%
6-year graduation rate:

69%
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One Response to “WSU: A “Best Value” in a Public College?”

  1. Nils Says:

    Joshua. Thnx for taking the time to examine this. There are lots of factors influencing those measures and student learning is not necessarily a key one. Seems I have seen the lifetime earning/ cost data. Also not about learning but one kind of nag for buck meaure

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