Over the past several decades, a growing number of organizations have created ranking systems aiming to measure the quality of higher education institutions, with the goal of providing information to students and their families as they make their college decisions. Ranking systems differ significantly in the factors they consider, and the emphasis they place on these factors, not only among ranking systems but also in the way each of them ranks institutions every year. In many cases, methodology changes make it impossible to make ranking comparisons for the same institution over time.
As described in this chapter, UC campuses are well represented in the various ranking systems, with many of them near or at the top of public institutions. For example, in this year’s College Access Index from the New York Times, six UC campuses are among the top seven colleges that are doing the most for low-income students. After evaluating these students’ graduation rates and the net cost students pay for a college education, the Times called the UC system “California’s upward-mobility machine” for providing a “top-flight education for the masses.”
In addition to the College Access Index, this chapter also provides information across a sample of other national and international ranking systems and describes how each of these uses a different combination of factors to signal aspects of quality across colleges and universities. For example, two organizations — U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) and the Washington Monthly — both rank undergraduate institutions, but they define education quality and value very differently.
USNWR focuses on academic reputation, graduation rates, student selectivity and financial resources to create its list of America’s Best Colleges; in contrast, the Washington Monthly defines academic quality in terms of an institution’s contribution to the public good. One ranking system, USNWR, looks at the quality of graduate and professional education in the U.S. Two other ranking systems — the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings — rank institutions around the globe, primarily using measures of faculty research productivity.
In May 2016, The Washington Post also produced its first ranking of institutions based on an analysis of transfer student data, with UCLA as the national leader among top-tier schools for the number of transfer students accepted each year.
Importantly, while we recognize that all of these rankings may be sources of information for students, UC does not endorse any particular ranking system nor does it have specific goals with respect to any of them. In fact, over the past few years, UC has strongly supported the development of the College Scorecard, a single source of national data and metrics that provide key information about college opportunity, cost of attendance and value of a degree available to the general public.
In September of 2015, after several years of continued efforts, the Department of Education unveiled a revamped version of the College Scorecard, an interactive tool that allows students, parents and counselors to search and compare institutions using their own academic, career and financial goals preferences. The College Scorecard includes information about student outcomes such as graduation rates, former student earnings, graduates’ student debt and borrowers’ repayment rates, with some of these data also available for various subgroups, such as first-generation and Pell students.
Analyses of the College Scorecard data demonstrate that UC continues to be a good investment for students and their families. Compared to other non-UC AAU public institutions, UC provides greater access for low-income and first-generation students, and underrepresented minorities. UC also demonstrates a strong record of high graduation rates and high median earnings after graduation for all students including those of low-income backgrounds.
Assessing institutional value-added, that is, how much the institutions themselves contribute to the outcomes of the students they enroll, is another interesting development in the ability to compare across higher education institutions. In the report “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools,” researchers from the Brookings Institution designed a method that takes into account a set of institutional and student characteristics. This makes it possible to determine institutional performance in student economic outcomes that are independent of what can be attributable to the type of students they enroll. Using this approach, UC campuses are among the public institutions offering the highest added value to their students.
One of the points of pride for the University of California is providing undergraduate and graduate students, many of them low-income, with access to an educational and research environment that is comparable to the nation’s finest private institutions but on a significantly larger scale. Each of five UC campuses enrolls more low-income students than all eight Ivy League institutions combined. This high-quality experience comes in large part from the excellence of UC’s faculty. Over the last decade, a UC faculty member has received a Nobel Prize on an almost annual basis, with 61 Nobel recipients in total for the UC system, placing it fourth in comparison to other countries. In addition, 600 UC scholars have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a recognition that scientists receive for continuing achievements in original research.
Throughout this chapter, rankings of comparison institutions are included.
The rankings selected for this report are as follows:
- The New York Times College Access Index
- Washington Monthly: National University Rankings
- U.S. News: America’s Top National Universities
- U.S. News: Graduate Program Rankings
- Shanghai Ranking Consultancy: Academic Ranking of World Universities
- Times Higher Education: World University Ranking
- The Washington Post: Top Transfer Destinations
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