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Ranking U.S. colleges: More lists than ever, with eye on value

Gracie Smyth, 16, who will be a senior

Gracie Smyth, 16, who will be a senior at the Ursuline School in New Rochelle, tours Molloy College in Rockville Centre with her parents, Thomas and Geraldine Smyth of Yonkers, on July 26, 2017. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

College application crunch time is just around the corner, and the number of rankings that compare post-secondary institutions nationwide has grown exponentially, flooding families with information and fueling an intense search process that in some school districts begins before high school.

Long Island’s college-bound students and their families have access to more and more publications that use multiple data points to assess 4,000-plus public and private colleges, their students, campus, faculty and alumni.

Driving the phenomenon is a multifaceted industry aimed at matching students with institutions. Since the Great Recession, many of the newer formulas that are used to rank schools measure cost, value and student debt — shifting away from brand name, athletics and tradition, although those remain important metrics.

The rankings — from U.S. News & World Report, one of the oldest, to College Factual, among the youngest — hold the potential to change a school’s marketing and recruitment strategy, affect alumni donations and, sometimes, send a message to college administrators about areas in need of improvement.

“The best measure is what happens to your students when they graduate. This is what everyone is challenging colleges and universities to do right now,” Molloy College President Drew Bogner said. “Is it worth the tuition? It’s not worth the tuition if you can’t see some return on your investment. And I don’t just mean getting a high-paying job. I’m talking about a fulfilling career and becoming a contributing member of society.”

Molloy, a 5,000-student Catholic college in Rockville Centre, was named No. 1 on Money magazine’s “Value All-Stars” list in the August 2016 issue. The distinction was featured on the school’s marketing materials and banners across the campus and used as a conversation starter with parents, and sometimes students.

“I was lucky enough to have two older siblings who have gone through the college search process, so we have the big books of ‘best schools.’ Narrowing down is the hard part,” said Gracie Smyth, 16, a rising senior at the Ursuline School in New Rochelle. After a tour of the Molloy campus, she sat with her parents poring over lists and catalogs.

“The first thing you think about is cost, of course, because it is all you hear about,” said her mother, Geraldine Smyth, 54, a registered nurse who grew up in Ireland, where the college selection process is different. “I never really cared [about] the name of the college, but what’s happening inside the walls and behind the gates.”

On Money’s most recent list, published this month, the school stands at No. 3. With a tuition sticker price of $29,110 for the 2017-18 school year, Molloy is considered a bargain when compared with private institutions charging more than $45,000. Its largest academic program — nursing — prepares graduates for a steady career in a high-demand field in the metropolitan area.

The ranking criteria

The magazine, which began ranking schools in 2015, measures universities and colleges whose graduates performed better than expected based upon their backgrounds, according to a note in the publication. Analysts look at 2,400 schools and use a formula of about 27 data points from publicly available sources, identifying the top 700 that provide value for tuition dollars.

Bogner said he had “no idea” Molloy would be on the Money magazine list along with Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, Manhattan College in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Some rankings use a combination of public data, stats reported by the colleges and surveys of their students.

For a long time, Bogner had been frustrated by the traditional metrics that parked Ivy League and other big-name schools at the top year after year. The new ranking criteria help lesser-known regional institutions without “selective school” cachet, nationally televised sports teams or celebrity alums.

“I don’t think any of the leading institutions in the country have gotten where they are by managing to the rankings,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley. “We don’t change a lot based on the rankings. Having said that, there are some measures we look at, particularly on outcomes, and we pay attention to them to the extent that they give us independent validation.”

Stony Brook, a state university with 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students, fared well in a unique study that compared colleges on the ability to raise the socioeconomic level of students above that of their parents.

The study, released in January, pulled data from federal tax returns and the U.S. Department of Education to issue “mobility report cards” for various colleges and universities, both public and private. The findings put SBU at No. 8 on the list of the top 10 institutions that improved the social mobility of students. The City University of New York system, California State University, Los Angeles and two campuses of the University of Texas joined Stony Brook on that list.

“There are a lot of midtier schools that admit a lot of low-income kids and have very good outcomes,” said economics professor Raj Chetty, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and one of the study’s authors. “Those are the colleges we should be looking to as models as we think about how to give more kids pathways to upward mobility.”

While Chetty focused on mid-tier schools, the study marks SBU’s admissions as highly competitive and very difficult, using several common measures.

U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” edition, which first hit newsstands in 1983, has faced competition for some time. Other traditional college guides, such as Princeton Review and Barron’s, also have been on the scene for years.

But looking at college with an eye toward investment value has changed the market. Publications including The Economist, Money, Forbes, Worth, The Washington Monthly, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today treat the college search as a consumer activity. Online newcomers to the scene — College Factual, Niche, Parchment and College Confidential — have categories that break down campuses based on diversity, activities, academic programs and most support for veterans and nontraditional students, such as those who change careers later in life.

Of course, not all of the rankings include every Long Island institution. For example, Webb Institute, a competitive, specialty undergraduate program that grants a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering, doesn’t have enough enrolled students to appear in many of the rankings. With an enrollment of 92 men and women, the private Glen Cove college provides its students with full-tuition scholarships.

U.S. News & World Report is expected to release its 2018 rankings on Sept. 12, just in time for the college application frenzy that kicks into high gear in the fall. Admission fairs, campus tours and admissions information nights dot the calendar in September, October and November.

In addition, the Common Application, accepted by more than 730 colleges, went live on its website Aug. 1. Some schools will require multipart applications and supplemental essays. Many students apply under Early Decision or Early Action plans — committing to their most beloved school before the pack, in an effort to gain an edge in admission. And yet, those able to pay application fees of $50 to $100 apiece will submit multiple applications. (It’s not unheard-of for a student to apply to 20 or 30 schools to hedge his or her bets.)

‘What’s in a ranking?’

On a sunny, 80-degree Friday morning in early August, students turned up at Syosset High School just after 8 a.m. to get a jump-start on their applications.

The high school held a “College Boot Camp,” with guidance counselors hosting rising seniors for semiprivate coaching on specific elements of their college applications. In Syosset, the conversation about college and furthering students’ postsecondary education begins in kindergarten, according to school officials.

By sixth grade, students are introduced to Naviance, a popular career-readiness and college search website. The company partners with nearly every K-12 system on Long Island and is a major provider nationally.

Syosset guidance counselor Jill Goldberg said having information from college rankings has helped both students and parents, but there are negative side effects.

“The downside is that it is causing anxiety for — literally — the whole country. The rankings. What’s in a ranking?” Goldberg said. “There are amazing schools that don’t have that ranking title. In this district, so many kids have the eye on that prize, and everyone seems to think they have to have that name recognition.”

Ninety-nine percent of Syosset’s graduates go to college, with anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent attending Ivy League or “top-tier” institutions, Assistant Principal Christopher Ruffini said. There are about 570 seniors in the 2017-18 school year.

Ruffini said the College Boot Camp will help ease the burden in the beginning of the senior year.

“We are very fortunate; we have a very supportive community. We wouldn’t be able to do this in the summertime if we didn’t,” he said.

Kim Oppelt, education and outreach manager at Naviance, said the rankings are really “popping up all over” and can overwhelm seniors and their parents, who probably didn’t use the internet when they were applying to colleges themselves.

Today’s students have many more options. There are numbered lists, each using different methodology to determine the top 10 or 100 or 1,000 schools.

Oppelt said the parameters around each of the rankings and guides can be drastically different because they tend to reflect the priorities of their readership.

“What might make the top of the list of U.S. News & World Report might be at the bottom of another,” Oppelt said.

Priyanka Gera, 16, a rising senior at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, said she is likely to apply to 10 colleges but hasn’t finalized her list. Her grade-point average puts her in the top 5 percent of her class and she knows she wants to stay close to home, she said.

“It really doesn’t matter to me whether a school is in the top 100 of any list. I really don’t think a ranking matters. I occasionally see those pop up, but I really don’t base any decision on those,” Gera said.

Instead, she wants to be sure she can see herself on a school’s campus for four years. She said she feels a bit behind in her search because she’s been consumed all summer working in a research lab in Manhattan.

“At this point it’s getting a little stressful. Getting the schoolwork done while doing the applications, it’s definitely a lot in the senior year,” Gera said.

Another student at Plainview-Old Bethpage, Luke Petrsoric, had a slightly different take.

“Rankings definitely play a factor,” said Petrsoric, 16, of Old Bethpage. “I’m looking at business, so I’m going to look at what are the top business schools. But I’m going to narrow it down, and go and visit, to see if it’s somewhere I want to be. It could be the best business school, but if it doesn’t fit with you it doesn’t matter.”

College tours

Guidance counselors and college consultants advise students to visit schools to get a feel for the campus life. At Plainview-Old Bethpage, sophomores go on a two-day college tour at the end of January. Each year, the school selects a different region and tries to hit large universities and small liberal arts colleges in one sweep. The program is in its fourth year and takes about 50 students.

One of the oldest college tour programs on Long Island, occurring each fall, takes students to visit historically black colleges.

William Mills, 58, a Central Islip resident who works in the insurance industry, volunteers with the Wyandanch chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., a nonprofit. He coordinates the campus tour, founded 36 years ago by members of the Lakeview Civic Association.

Each October, the group charters three buses to take 100 to 150 students and chaperones to a different region on a visit of schools that have included Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Morgan State University in Baltimore; and Hampton University in Virginia.

“You can go wherever you want to go,” Mills said he tells the participants. “But know your history and know your heritage. Going on a college tour is a great experience, no matter what campus you visit.”

Mills said the group is a mix of students from Long Island and New York City schools, varying in their academic strength and ability to pay.

The tour is open to anyone and occasionally will have students from other states. Donors provide financial assistance to those who don’t have the means to pay, but most of the students and families pay the full cost of $675 for seven days, which includes some meals.

Even with all the rankings, guides, data and tours, colleges are institutions — and it’s hard to look behind their walls, most experts agreed.

“They are all very big businesses; it’s very difficult to see what’s going on. Colleges are quite opaque,” said Bill Phelan, co-founder and CEO of College Factual, an education technology company and provider of data-driven college rankings. College Factual uses more than 1,500 data points per college per year and breaks down the individual academic programs using a variety of publicly reported data.

Started in 2005, the company, based in upstate Troy, has 12 employees. The website sees about 800,000 to 1 million visitors monthly, Phelan said.

The biggest problem, he said, is searching for a college based on a ranking without understanding that success has more to do with whether or not the student will persist in a career post-college. Identifying individual strengths and interests early on is key.

“Don’t look at the colleges. Start by looking at your child,” Phelan added.

HOW LI COLLEGES STACK UP

Here’s how Long Island’s public and private four-year colleges rank in recent lists in some publications.*

U.S. News & World Report, 2017

  • National Universities

#96 Stony Brook University

#133 Hofstra University

#146 Adelphi University

  • Regional Universities (North)

#3 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

#17 Farmingdale State College

#32 New York Institute of Technology

#44 Molloy College

#80 St. Joseph’s College

#114 LIU Post

  • Top Public Colleges

#42 Stony Brook University

Money magazine, 2017-18

  • Overall Best Colleges for Your Money

#54 Stony Brook University

#96 Molloy College

#303 Adelphi University

#374 St. Joseph’s College

  • 50 Best Public Colleges

#32 Stony Brook University

  • 50 Best Colleges where more than half of applicants get in

#29 Molloy College

  • Value-Added All Stars

#3 Molloy College

College Factual

  • Top Quality Overall (of 1,387 colleges nationally)

#141 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

#219 Stony Brook University

#272 Adelphi University

#285 Hofstra University

#507 New York Institute of Technology

#519 St. Joseph’s College

#866 LIU Post

#984 Farmingdale State College

#1,013 SUNY Old Westbury

Forbes, 2017

  • Top Colleges

#51 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

#187 Stony Brook University

#323 Hofstra University

#332 Adelphi University

#385 St. Joseph’s College

#446 Farmingdale State College

Niche.com

  • Top Colleges, New York (out of 237)

#26 Stony Brook University

#28 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

#35 Adelphi University

#36 Molloy College

#43 Hofstra University

#51 St. Joseph’s College

#67 New York Institute of Technology

*This list is a snapshot of the rankings on the market. Publications have various categories and lists in addition to a main, national list. Not all of Long Island’s universities and colleges are represented in each of the lists.

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