Many affordable public universities are beating out elite privates in terms of educational ROI
This trend is captured by Degreechoices’ unique ranking methodology
City College of New York is a perfect example of a high-value college that is an effective social elevator for low-income students
When Degreechoices released its new rankings of the economic value of attending American college earlier this year, many observers were surprised by several of the institutions that topped the charts.
They had grown accustomed to most college ranking schemes being dominated by a combination of elite private colleges and public flagship universities. However, with our revised methodology measuring the economic return students can expect from attending different institutions, public colleges and universities fared much better.
New college rankings that disrupt the status quo
There’s no better illustration of this upending of traditional conceptions of college rankings than The City College of New York, the school featured in this Ranking Spotlight, part of our continuing series that’s focused on the unique qualities and achievements of several schools that we call “overperformers.” These are colleges that do a great job of preparing students for productive careers at a relatively affordable price. Nonetheless, they are often overlooked in other ranking systems that place the greatest premium on reputation and institutional resources.
What are “overperformers”
Overperformers are colleges that do a great job of preparing students for productive careers at a relatively affordable price.
Yes, many big-name, well-resourced universities still performed very well in our rankings. For example, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale all made the top ten. But City College of New York topped them all, placing first in our 2023 rankings of national universities.
Our transparent ranking methodology
Just as a brief reminder, here’s how our ranking methodology works. Using public cost and earnings data from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we calculate two metrics that we then mathematically combine into an institution’s total economic score, upon which the final rankings are based.
Payback measures how long it would take on average for students to recoup the total cost of attending college (after financial aid) with their marginal earnings. Marginal earnings are computed as the difference between what the average student would have earned without attending college and what he or she earns afterwards. It’s similar to Third Way’s Price-to-Earnings Premium, whose educational director Michael Itzkowitz consulted on our methodology.
EarningsPlus compares student earnings after college against a benchmark that’s adjusted based on two variables that influence salary comparisons – each school’s unique mix of academic programs (e.g., does it offer degrees in disciplines such as engineering, nursing, computer science and education) and the percentage of in-state and out-of-state students in its overall enrollment.
Whether payback or EarningsPlus is more important will vary depending on individual circumstances. Payback reveals how soon educational costs can be recovered on average, while EarningsPlus conveys relative economic advantages later down the road.
To arrive at what is called an institution’s economic score, the factor Degreechoices uses to rank schools, an institution’s payback is divided by the percentage advantage/disadvantage of its EarningsPlus factor. The lower the resulting quotient, the higher the school’s ranking.
One thing is certain. With Degreechoices’ methodology, public universities fare much better than they do in many other college ranking schemes. For example, among national universities, 9 of the top 20, and 31 of the top 50, are public institutions.
» Read: America’s best public universities
The City College of New York displays exemplary performance
There’s no better illustration of this result than The City College of New York (CCNY), aka CUNY City College, where it takes less than 6 months for the average student receiving federal financial aid to pay the total cost of their education. 10 years after attending college, CCNY students, regardless of whether they graduated or not, are earning an average of $55,741 a year.
CCNY has been recognized by other publications for the economic mobility achieved by its students – measured by the percentage of students who move up a certain number of income quintiles after attendance. For example, CCNY was ranked #1 by the Chronicle of Higher Education out of 369 selective public colleges for the overall economic mobility of its students.
These numbers are consistent with CCNY’s national reputation as an institution that offers its students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, excellent prospects for significant upward economic mobility. CCNY’s economic score was .45, just edging out Stanford and MIT, which placed second and third, respectively, in our latest rankings.
» Read: The top national universities in the US
About CUNY City College
CCNY was founded in 1847, making it the first institution in the City University of New York System (CUNY), which is the largest public urban university in the country, enrolling about 243,000 students. Other well-known CUNY institutions are Brooklyn College, Hunter College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Lehman College.
CCNY has a total enrollment of about 16,000 students, of which approximately 12,000 are undergraduates. It boasts a very diverse student body; white students constitute 13% of its enrollment compared to the national average of 52%. More than a third of its students are Hispanic, far larger than the national average of 15%. Asian students make up 26% of its enrollment, compared to an average of 5% for all national universities.
CUNY schools do extremely well in our separate rankings of the best Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) in the U.S. The top 6 spots were claimed by CUNY institutions – in order, they were Bernard M. Baruch College, Hunter College, Lehman College, CCNY, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Queens College.
CCNY accepts 64% of its applicants, and over half (53%) of its graduates receive Pell Grant support. It has a six-year graduation rate of 59%, and Pell Grant recipients graduate at roughly the same rate as those not receiving Pell support.
CCNY’s recipe for success
What factors help explain CCNY’s strong performance in our rankings?
- It offers academic programs in several academic fields that tend to lead to good-paying jobs, including engineering, health professions, architecture, and several STEM disciplines.
- Many of its baccalaureate students go on to graduate and professional programs, where they obtain advanced degrees, further improving their career prospects.
- Through the generous financial aid received by a large percentage of its students, CCNY is very affordable. Considering federal, state, and institutional grants and scholarships, 97% of CCNY undergraduates receive financial aid, bringing the net cost of their education to a very affordable amount.
For our purposes, CCNY earns a ranking spotlight primarily because of its overall excellent performance in preparing students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to be economically successful. In our own measure of economic mobility, CCNY ranks among the top 5% of all national universities. When it comes to the basic, bottom-line questions asked by the majority of today’s college students – will this college prepare me for a productive career, and what’s the return on my investment it will deliver – CCNY has a proven track record of exemplary success.