Why some schools overperform in our rankings

Dr. Michael Nietzel
Dr. Michael Nietzel

Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

Why some schools overperform in our rankings

Several lesser-known schools that tend not to do well in other ranking systems perform extremely well in ours.

These schools do well because they provide economic value to their attendees and graduates, a factor that our ranking methodology emphasizes.

This article digs deeper into some of these “overperformers” to explore what makes them so successful at providing return on educational investment.

At DegreeChoices, we’ve developed a ranking methodology that puts a premium – not on reputation, test scores, endowments, or other institutional resources – but on the economic value of attending a specific school.

Based on data from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) and the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, we ranked close to 2,200 undergraduate colleges and universities based on a calculation of 2 economic outcomes.

  • payback – this represents the length of time it takes students to earn back the amount they invested in their education after attending a given school. Payback is calculated by dividing the costs of attending a school by the average earnings compared to peers in the state without a college education.
  • earningsplus – a comparison of differences in earnings between students from a particular college compared to all other colleges in the same state. To calculate earningsplus, we deduct the weighted average earnings within the state from the median earnings of students who have attended a particular school.

We assign an economic score to each institution. It is calculated by dividing the school’s payback by its (negative or positive) earningsplus score. This economic score is the measure by which we ultimately rank schools.

If an institution has an economic score lower than its payback rate, it means its attendees on average go on to earn higher salaries than the state average. Therefore, in our methodology, a lower economic score is better.

We ranked institutions in several different categories – including national universities, liberal arts colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions.

In each instance, several high-profile, elite institutions performed very well. Among national universities, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania all made our top 10. Among liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore, Williams, and Amherst all were in our top 20. Those institutions perennially make the top 10 or 20 in almost any rankings you consult.

But several colleges and universities did particularly well in our rankings that usually place much lower in U.S. News and World Report or The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings. These “over-performers” are intriguing. They’re usually overlooked in conversations about great schools, but when it comes to economic payoff, they’re at the head of the class.

What accounts for the relatively strong economic success of students attending these schools? What makes them successful? We decided to dig deeper into some of these institutions to find out.

The schools that did well in our rankings but place much lower in U.S. News and Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings are often overlooked in conversations about great schools. But they’re at the head of the class in terms of economic payoff.

As an example, take Wabash College, a private liberal arts college in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It ranked 9th in our system, but placed only 55th in the latest U.S. News rankings.

According to our study, it takes students only 2 years on average to pay back their out-of-pocket cost of attending Wabash. Ten years after attending, the median annual salary of Wabash alums is $63,425, or $17,780 more than the median salary for students attending any college in Indiana.

Wabash was founded in 1832. It currently enrolls about 850 students. What is it about Wabash that explains its success in creating strong economic outcomes for its students? I recently spoke with Scott Feller, Wabash’s president, to find out more about the keys to the college’s success. In other words, what’s its “secret sauce”?

Ten years after attending, the median annual salary of Wabash alums is $63,425, or $17,780 more than the median salary for students attending any college in Indiana.

First, Wabash is one of only three colleges whose student body is all male (Morehouse and Hampden-Sydney are the other two). That distinction has implications for economic measures because men typically make more than women working in the same professions. So in a way, Wabash has a wind at its back when it comes to alumni earnings.

But there is more to it than that, as Feller was eager to point out. First and foremost, he told me that Wabash attracts students with particularly strong commitments to personal success. “People don’t come to Wabash by default,” he told me. “They tend to be strivers, who are committed to meeting our high expectations for achievement and personal responsibility.”

Wabash also offers a mix of academic programs, active learning experiences, and student support services that are designed to develop students for economic success and productive careers. Here are six examples:

  1. WabashX is an innovative set of co-curricular, experiential learning opportunities that give students practical opportunities to become involved in business innovation, global health, digital media, and civic leadership, all areas where outstanding careers are available. About half of Wabash students take part in WabashX activities, regardless of their major, and roughly a quarter are involved intensively, according to Feller.
  2. Wabash offers a rich array of internships (ranked 3rd in the nation for private schools by Princeton Review), providing students with abundant opportunities to work at leading businesses and organizations, where they often end up taking their first jobs.
  3. Princeton Review ranked Wabash’s alumni network as the second best among private colleges and universities in the nation. That well-established group is key to helping graduates obtain good jobs, particularly in the Midwest, the region from which most Wabash students are drawn.
  4. Wabash has also invested extensively in its Schroeder Center for Career Development, again earning it national recognition for the way it organizes career and professional development experiences for students.
  5. While Wabash emphasizes the liberal arts, it also offers joint engineering programs in collaboration with Purdue University, Columbia University and Washington University-St. Louis. These dual-degree programs lead to both a B.A. degree from Wabash and a B.S. degree in engineering or applied science from Purdue, Columbia or Washington. The opportunity to earn an engineering degree is important in our economic analysis because engineer salaries tend to be among the highest of any field.
  6. A large percentage of Wabash graduates go on to pursue graduate and professional degrees, preparing them for high-paying positions in law, medicine, and other professions. For example, its graduates enjoy a 94% acceptance rate to medical school.

In 2021, 100% of Wabash graduates were either employed, attending graduate or professional school, or engaged in other forms of service within six months of graduating. That was the fifth consecutive year where Wabash graduates had achieved their first destinations following graduation at rates among the highest in the nation, consistent with our findings that Wabash alumni have received an excellent economic return from their education there.

» Read: Best engineering degrees by ROI

That’s no accident, according to Feller, who told me, “Wabash is a place where everyone – faculty, staff, and coaches – pushes our students to be their best. Our community embraces the fact that our students are strivers; they are not interested in delaying adulthood for another 4 years. They want to be in the fast lane and we put all of our resources into helping them get there.”

Our deeper dive into the reasons behind Wabash College’s success revealed a number of factors that help account for its excellent economic impact. We will continue to explore the reasons behind the success of high-performing colleges and universities in subsequent installments.

Did you enjoy this post?