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New Player in Rankings Game Mines Alumni Opinions

If you had it to do all over again, would you choose to attend your alma mater? Do you think the education you received there was a good value? How much money do you make? Oh, and are you happy?

The newest player in the college-rankings game has asked such questions of more than 42,000 college graduates. Called the Alumni Factor, the new venture has released a college guide based largely on the opinions of those who’ve earned bachelor’s degrees from one of 177 institutions.

“We want to pierce the bubble of reputation,” says the introduction to the Alumni Factor’s guide, “to understand how graduates actually perform post-graduation—and hear what they have to say about the job their college did to prepare them.”

Although the nation’s shelves are already full—perhaps too full—of college guides, the Alumni Factor’s timing, at least, seems impeccable. Today’s students and parents are asking more questions about outcomes, about the success and salaries of an institution’s graduates.

Kicking the tires on a college means inquiring about the long-term benefits, tangible or otherwise, that come with a diploma. And now consumers can buy the results of a vast opinion survey of graduates that allows them to compare colleges in various categories. (You may now cheer—or jeer—this development accordingly.)

To create the Alumni Factor rankings, researchers measured 15 different attributes for each college, including the average income and average net worth of its graduates. Respondents—between 100 to 500 from each college—were asked about their intellectual and social development, as well as their “overall happiness.” In case you’re wondering, only 49.6 percent of all the graduates surveyed agreed strongly with this statement: “My college developed me intellectually.”

Respondents were also asked to rate how well their alma mater prepared them for their first job. Would they recommend their alma mater to a student who was considering it? That answer was factored in, too. The only measures that are not based on surveys: six-year graduation rates and alumni giving rates.

Monica McGurk, the guide’s executive editor, says the findings will help colleges, not just students and parents. She has discussed the results with officials from several of the institutions that appear in the rankings. Some were disappointed by the results, she says, but all of them were fascinated to see how their college compared with others. “This is a way to re-engage them in their purpose and their mission,” Ms. McGurk says, “and to get out of the brand-building and reputation cycle that focuses them on selectivity.”

The guide, which sells for $29.95, includes a composite ranking of all the colleges. On that list, Washington & Lee University, in Virginia, is tops, followed by Yale, Princeton, and Rice Universities. Each institution is also ranked within each of the 15 categories. The Alumni Factor’s Web site will allow subscribers to create personalized rankings, based on the weights they assign to different attributes.

As with any rankings system, there are limits to how much this one can tell you. Although the Alumni Factor touts that it’s all about outcomes, a graduate’s opinion of his alma mater—not to mention his level of contentment and net worth—surely have much to do with factors beyond the influence of the college. Those factors may well relate strongly to “input” variables, like where he grew up, how much money his parents made, and what his academic interests were.

Or they may relate to postcollege choices, like going to graduate or professional school. And opinions, like the wind, are subject to change over time. How reliable are they at a given point in time?

Whatever the limitations, Jeffrey Durso-Finley, director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, welcomes the new guide. “I don’t think it’s going to revolutionize college rankings,” he says, “but it’s going to add a really interesting twist to the conversation.”

When the Alumni Factor sent him its preliminary findings a while back, he was so intrigued that he agreed to serve on the company’s advisory board. “It may be somewhat heretical to say, but I like that there are more rankings out there because it dilutes the pool a little bit,” he says.

That the Alumni Factor’s rankings put a lot of stock in subjective evaluations might just remind students that, in the end, choosing a college is not a science.

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