Penn State Jumps 91 Spots to No. 93 in Forbes Rankings

Penn State is Forbes’ 93rd-best college in America, a vast improvement upon the school’s #184 overall ranking last year. However, this #93 ranking by Forbes pales in comparison to Penn State’s world ranking — 50th in the world according to the Center for World University Rankings for 2013, and 61st in the world according to Thomson Reuters’ Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2012-2013.

93rd in the country versus 50th in the world. Why such a disparity?

It’s because Forbes only considers Penn State’s undergraduate programs in its rankings, whereas the Center for World University Rankings and Thomson Reuters’ Times Higher Education also consider (and heavily weight) Penn State’s significant research contributions. For instance, research accounts for 60 percent of a university’s score in Reuters’ World University Rankings.

That means that, when discounting Penn State’s capacity as a research university, Penn State’s clout as a college alone doesn’t match up nearly as well against other undergraduate programs in the world, let alone in the United States.

Let’s take a look at Forbes’ ranking methodology to figure out why Penn State is the 93rd-best college in the country:

Methodology

“Will my classes be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job and be a leader in my chosen profession?”

— Forbes, “Ranking America’s Top Colleges 2013

Forbes’ list of top colleges in America distinguishes itself from other rankings by measuring “output” (i.e. return on investment) instead of “input” — that is to say, instead of using metrics of college selectivity such as SAT scores, GPA, class rank, et cetera. Thus, in partnership with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), Forbes ranked America’s colleges based on their scores in the following “output” metrics: Student Satisfaction (25% of the total score), Post-Graduate Success (35%), Student Debt (17.5%), Four-Year Graduation Rate (11.25%), and Academic Success (11.25%).

Below is the full breakdown of the Forbes/CCAP ranking methodology:

  1. Student Satisfaction (25%)
    1. Student Evaluations from RateMyProfessor.com (15%)
    2. Actual Freshmen-to-Sophomore Retention Rates (5%)
    3. Predicted vs. Actual Freshmen-to-Sophomore Retention Rates (5%)
  2. Post-Graduate Success (35%)
    1. Salary of Alumni from Payscale.com (15%)
    2. American Leaders List (20%)
  3. Student Debt (17.5%)
    1. Average Federal Student Loan Debt Load (10%)
    2. Student Loan Default Rates (5%)
    3. Predicted vs. Actual Percent of Students Taking Federal Loans (2.5%)
  4. Four-year Graduation Rate (11.25%)
    1. Actual Four-year Graduation Rate (8.75%)
    2. Predicted vs. Actual Four-year Graduation Rate (2.5%)
  5. Academic Success (11.25%)
    1. Student Nationally Competitive Awards (7.5%)
    2. Alumni receiving PhDs (3.75%)

So how does No. 93 Penn State score? Are Penn State’s students satisfied with their academic experience? Are they getting hired after graduation, and at that, how much are they being paid? How much student debt are they incurring, and can they pay it back?

Beyond all that, are Penn Staters becoming America’s next generation of leaders?

Breaking down Penn State’s scores

It turns out that Penn State scores rather poorly in some measures of student satisfaction and student debt, but for the most part performs well in measures of post-graduate and academic success.

Student Satisfaction

  • Penn State scores rather abysmally in the “Rate My Professors” category, placing at #569 out of 650 schools;
  • Penn State is #105 out of 650 for “Actual Retention Rates”;
  • Penn State is #113 out of 650 for “Actual vs. Predicted Retention Rates”.

Post-Graduate Success

  • Penn State comes in at #144 out of 650 for Payscale Salary Rank;
  • Penn State places at a stellar #49 out of 650 for the American Leaders List. (See: Penn State notable alumni.)

Student Debt

  • Penn State is #305 out of 650 for “Average Federal Student Loan Debt Load” (read: not good);
  • Penn State is #486 out of 650 for “Student Loan Default Rates” (read: terrible);
  • Penn State is #240 out of 650 for “Predicted vs. Actual Percent of Students Taking Federal Loans”.

Four-year Graduation Rates

  • Penn State is #194 out of 650 for “Actual Four-year Graduation Rate”;
  • Penn State is #51 out of 650 for “Predicted vs. Actual Four-year Graduation Rate”.

Academic Success

Takeaways

So the big question is, “Do rankings matter? Should we care?”

The non-committal (but perhaps most appropriate) answer is “yes and no.” Though Forbes’/CCAP’s research methodology is certainly fair in how it measures the value of a Penn State degree — when we go to college, we expect a certain level of return-on-investment — your starting or lifetime salary doesn’t necessary measure the full benefits you capture from four years at University Park. It’s also worth noting that, given Pennsylvania’s notoriously high tuition rates at its public universities, it’s only natural that a Penn State degree presents a lower RoI than a similar state education elsewhere, regardless of the quality of instruction.

We should also consider how Penn State’s academic objective might affect its rankings. Unlike a school that tends to educate the country’s elite like the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University seems to be designed to educate mostly middle-class kids from within Pennsylvania and from the surrounding states in close proximity.

That means that — speaking frankly — Penn State has a larger population of average students (a result of a relatively high acceptance rate of 52.4%) than a school like UPenn, which on average selects for students of a higher academic caliber. This fact helps explain why Penn State does not perform as well on several of Forbes’/CCAP’s metrics — payscale, retention, student debt, and graduation rates — because of the dilution effect involved in using average measures.

The best indicator of the value of a Penn State degree, then, might well be Penn State’s #49 ranking on the “American Leaders List” — this measure indicates that the sky is the ceiling for Penn State graduates. If you graduate from Penn State, you have the potential to be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a renowned author or playwright, a groundbreaking researcher, anything.

In any case, Penn State is still the top-rated state school in Pennsylvania. For reference, the University of Pittsburgh is ranked exactly 100 spots lower at #193.

Can we do better? Probably. Penn State jumped from #184 to #93 in the space of a year — and, according to Forbes, “name-brand public schools are on the rise.” If Penn State reduces student debt burden and improves students’ satisfaction with their in-class education, I think the university will continue its rise up the ranks among America’s top colleges.

For Forbes’ full list of college rankings, click here.

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Bobby Chen

Writer and photographer, helping tell the many stories of the Penn State community.

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