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Recent study ranks Alfred University higher than Yale, Dartmouth

No one would confuse Alfred University in Allegany County with schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But in a recent study that aims to identify the influence individual colleges have on the success of their graduates, Alfred more than measured up to the vaunted Ivies.

Alfred scored on par with Princeton and better than Yale and Dartmouth in the Brookings Institution’s “value added” assessment of about 4,000 schools nationwide. It also was the best-rated school in Western New York, according to the methods that the researchers at the nonpartisan think tank used.

D’Youville College and the University at Buffalo scored highly, too, while SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Buffalo State received low scores.

The Brookings analysis is the latest in a growing list of independent efforts to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions.

And it revealed plenty of surprises – including not a single Ivy League school listed among the top 20 schools. California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., scored best in the nation, followed by Colgate University in Central New York, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. SUNY Maritime College, located in the Bronx, and Clarkson University in St. Lawrence County located in northern New York were among the top eight.

Annual college rankings by media such as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and Money continue to be influential among prospective college students and their parents. But some critics point out that the rankings give too much weight to factors that primarily emphasize the nation’s wealthiest and most selective schools.

U.S. News’ most recent “Best Colleges” listing, for example, had Princeton, which boasts an endowment of more than $18 billion, ranked first in the country, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Chicago. Each of those schools were among the 15 wealthiest schools in the nation, by endowment size, and each accepted fewer than 9 percent of students who applied for admission.

The Brookings study, “Beyond College Rankings,” aimed to broaden the analysis of college quality by determining which ones do the best job of contributing to the economic success of their graduates, said Siddharth Kulkarni, senior research assistant at Brookings and one of the study’s co-authors.

“We found that there was a lot more data available that other people were not using. We feel like ours is a very rigorous statistical approach,” Kulkarni said. “We’re just trying to provide as much information as possible ... We hope it helps students and parents make better decisions about where to go.”

Many of the colleges and universities that typically do well in the popular rankings also scored highly in the Brookings study.

Predicted incomes

The researchers developed a “predicted economic outcome” for students at each institution, based upon 20 variables at all schools. Then they examined actual alumni outcomes, as found in mid-career earnings data from PayScale.com. The difference between the predicted outcome and the actual outcome is considered the “value-added” for a school.

At Alfred University, actual mid-career earnings for a typical graduate were $86,600, nearly $21,500 more than the projected mid-career earnings. Alfred scored a 94 out of a maximum of 100 in value-added for mid-career earnings. The study credited the quality of Alfred’s curriculum and its orientation toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines for adding the value. But it also pointed out that much of the value added came from an unmeasurable “X-factor” at the university.

Alfred President Charles M. Edmondson attributed some of the X-factor to the university’s rural setting, which allows for students to learn and grow without distractions, both inside and outside the classroom.

“We envision campus life as being a learning experience as well,” he said. “We are in a sense like a little learning laboratory.”

Among Western New York colleges and universities, D’Youville College scored next highest behind Alfred with an 82 in the mid-career earnings category, followed by UB, SUNY Geneseo at 60, Niagara University at 46, Canisius College at 43, Houghton College at 35, Medaille College at 18, Fredonia at 8 and Buffalo State at 7.

Daemen College, St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College were among several hundred colleges for which PayScale did not have mid-career earnings data. Those schools were not scored on that factor.

Repaying loans

The study also scored schools on two other economic factors: How well graduates repaid their student loans, and the types of jobs graduates earned and how well those jobs paid.

Alfred scored a 94 out of 100 in value-added for “occupational earnings power” – also best among Western New York schools. The predicted “occupational earnings power” for Alfred alumni was $61,358, compared with an actual earnings power of $66,156.

Buffalo State had the second-highest score among Western New York schools for its value added in occupational earnings power. Medaille scored the worst.

Buffalo State President Katherine S. Conway-Turner described the Brookings findings as “thought-provoking and worth further examination.”

“Although the research shows our graduates’ average mid-career earnings are lower than anticipated, Buffalo State ranks second among four-year colleges in Western New York for the value added to our graduates’ projected occupational earnings power,” Conway-Turner said in a statement.

In Brookings’ loan repayment value-added, SUNY Geneseo had the highest score, 89, among Western New York schools. Geneseo’s predicted loan repayment rate was 92.4 percent; its actual rate was 97.4 percent. D’Youville had the worst score in that category among Western New York colleges.

Two-year colleges

The Brookings study also included two-year colleges, unlike most of the popular ratings.

SUNY College of Technology at Alfred, which is not affiliated with Alfred University, was at the top of the list of two-year college graduates who possess “high-value” skills, the study found.

Alfred State scored a 99 in the occupational earnings category, tied for the eighth-highest score in the country, a 78 in mid-career earnings and a 92 in loan repayment.

Erie Community College also was listed among the two-year schools where alumni had the most valuable skills. ECC scored a 56 in the mid-career earnings category, a 79 in occupational earnings and a 24 in loan repayment.

Brookings, based in Washington, D.C., released its report in April. The study hasn’t received nearly as much attention as the annual U.S. News’ rankings, which debuted about 30 years ago and have helped spawn a cottage industry of college rating systems.

“Methodologies to rate colleges and universities are a dime a dozen these days,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a higher education lobby group. “Almost every week, somebody seems to produce a new rating system.”

Even the federal Department of Education had been planning its own rankings, although it recently backed away from a scoring system for colleges and universities amid criticism from higher education administrators and members of Congress. Jamienne Studley, deputy undersecretary and acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, wrote in a blog post this week that the Education Department expected to unveil “new tools” for evaluating colleges later this summer.

“By providing a wealth of data – including many important metrics that have not been published before – students and families can make informed comparisons and choices based on the criteria most important to them,” Studley said.

Study available online

The Brookings study is available at brookings.edu and includes a searchable database of schools.

Edmondson, the Alfred University president, had yet to study the Brookings report in great detail. But he said he was happy to see it stretch beyond the usual “input measures” – such as grade-point averages and SAT scores of incoming students, which skew heavily in favor of the most selective schools.

Edmondson called those numbers “little more than reflections of prestige.”

“We’re more about value than about price and we’re more about outcomes than we are inputs,” he said. “I think we get elite results, but we don’t have elite attitudes or elite prices.”

But Hartle said the Brookings study has limitations.

For one, it is complicated and academic, potentially making it very difficult for parents and students to wrap their minds around, he said.

And it emphasizes earnings as a measure of success over many other aspects of what a higher education can bring to a student.

“Not all schools seek to maximize economic success,” Hartle said. “Fundamentally, any ranking system is about values. In this case, the only value is economic success. This ignores civic participation, it ignores community service. It ignores schools that send a large number of students to graduate and professional schools.”

Brookings researchers hope to tweak the study in future years as more data becomes available, said Kulkarni.

Most colleges that have contacted him about the study have been grateful for the information, even if their schools didn’t fare as well as they would have liked, he added.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com