Monday, January 18, 2010

Best Values in Public Colleges

In my November 23, 2009 blog posting I wrote about finding value in public colleges and universities. As a follow up, I wanted to share the link to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine which recently published its 100 Best Values in Public Colleges 2009-2010. You can find the full list at

The Kiplinger report also includes a one page guide to the methodology used in the rankings, explaining that both academic quality and affordability come into play. The first cut to make the list was academic quality, which for purposes of the listing includes SAT or ACT scores, admission and retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four and six-year graduation rates. Academics, in fact, are weighted almost two-thirds more than affordability. The schools were then ranked based on cost and financial aid. The cost assessment takes into consideration total expenses for in-state students, and then looks at the average cost for both need and merit aid recipients after subtracting grants. A similar exercise was done to determine out-of-state rankings.

Why is the primary emphasis on academic quality rather than cost? Following the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” Kiplinger is rightfully concerned that state schools are following prudent strategies to maintain or even improve quality while keeping costs down. Are colleges successfully eliminating the fat in their budgets or rather, cutting into their core mission initiatives (reducing or eliminating academic programs that benefit students, for example)? That is an important factor in the quality assessment.

In my prior posting about state universities, I mentioned that many of these institutions, in an effort to increase revenues, are trying to grow their out-of-state enrollment for obvious reasons: non-resident students pay more. As a result, several public “Ivies” and other flagship state universities, unlike some of their private, highly selective counterparts, offer merit aid to entice top non-resident students (A topic, perhaps, for another posting is the criticism public universities have recently received as a result of these policies: see the January 14, 2010 Washington Post Schools such as the University of Maryland and UNC-Chapel Hill seek to increase non-resident enrollment and are using merit aid to bring in out-of-state tuition and to shape a class (though North Carolina has an 18% cap on the percentage of students from outside the state).

If you are exploring public colleges for value, then certainly take a look at the Kiplinger list. However, I will offer my usual caveat about rankings. Determining “value” based on a selection of criteria that include such measures as standardized test scores will probably yield results that should be viewed with a critical, if not skeptical eye. The conclusions drawn are not scientific. As I have stated in the past, “value” will largely be influenced by how good a fit the school is for the students attending. Student engagement is often what contributes most to value.

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